Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE....It's long annoyed me that reports from the Congressional Research Service aren't available to the public. After all, $100 million per year of our tax dollars funds their work.

Today, though, I learned about Open CRS, an effort to collect CRS reports and put them in a single searchable archive on the web. So far they've collected 8,223 CRS reports on subjects ranging from CAFTA to random drug testing.

This is a great resource for policy wonks of all stripes. CRS reports are commissioned by congressmen on a wide variety of topics, they're generally nonpartisan and reliable, and most of them run 5-10 pages, which makes them terrific introductions to complex issues. Someday Congress may decide that CRS itself should collect and index all their reports online, but until they do Open CRS is the best we've got. Highly recommended.

Kevin Drum 11:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NASR RENDITION UPDATE....So did the Italian government know in advance about the CIA's 2003 kidnapping in Milan of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr and his subsequent rendition to Egypt? Dana Priest's CIA sources say the Italians knew all about it, but today the Italian government denied everything:

Responding to questions about the article from lawmakers in the Italian Senate, Giovanardi said simply, "it's false." Later, in the Chamber of Deputies, he called the Post article "a report without any foundation, a false report, which the Italian government is able to deny with great calm."

....some opposition lawmakers said they were unconvinced by Thursday's denial and said evidence was mounting that Italian intelligence agencies were complicit in the operation.

"Obviously, they cannot admit this because it violates the Constitution, Italian laws and international treaties," said Luigi Malabarba, leader of the Communist Refoundation Party and a member of the parliamentary committee that oversees the Italian secret services.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain the CIA's actions.

Is this a kabuki dance for the benefit of the public, or was Berlusconi truly in the dark about all this? I'd guess the former, but in any case this is shaping up to be a fine little showdown that might shake loose some interesting tidbits along the way. Investigative reporters everywhere should be licking their chops.

Kevin Drum 3:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REPUBLICAN WAR AGAINST THE MIDDLE CLASS....Senate Republicans are taking aim at surprise! middle class families that try to shield assets from the government in order to deceive Medicaid into paying for nursing home care for elderly relatives:

As costs have risen, it has become commonplace for families to transfer elderly relatives' assets to others often to adult children or to grandchildren through gifts or other legal devices, to keep the assets instead of letting them be used for nursing home care. So widespread is the practice that some estate planners hold seminars complete with video presentations, refreshments and spreadsheets.

Wrong is wrong, and it's not as if I'm a fan of loopholes that allow stuff like this to happen. Still, the planned Republican "crackdown" is pretty appalling coming from a party that's spent a big part of the past decade in an effort to eliminate estate taxes on the ultra rich so that their assets can be safely passed along in perpetuity to subsequent generations of Republican campaign contributors.

This is all of a piece for the modern Republican party: play to the cameras by denouncing penny ante reports of fraud from the poor and the middle class while doing nothing or even encouraging far greater use of tax loopholes by the rich. In the 90s, for example, Republicans forced Bill Clinton to devote extra money to prosecuting fraudulent use of the Earned Income Tax Credit by the poor, a problem that cost the government virtually nothing, while protecting the far greater tax avoidance of the rich by holding sham hearings designed to portray IRS agents as jackbooted thugs. The charges against the IRS turned out to be largely without merit, but the dramatically hooded witnesses testifying at the Roth hearings had already done their televised damage. The budget for IRS investigations of the rich were slashed, and tax avoidance soared to ever great heights.

More recently, of course, Senate Republicans have cracked down on bankruptcy "abuse" by the poor a pressing problem only for the credit card companies that demanded the legislation and are now taking aim at Medicaid. Meanwhile, in the wake of Enron, Republicans were persuaded only by the bracing prospect of midterm elections to pass the Sarbanes-Oxley act, while George Bush spent his time defending SEC chief Harvey Pitt, a man who had publicly expressed his desire for a "kinder and gentler" SEC. Pitt eventually resigned and was replaced by a guy who accidentally turned out to be pretty toughminded about corporate oversight, but with Enron now nothing but a memory and Republicans in control of everything, Bush feels free to replace him with a congressman whose sympathy for gentle oversight of corporate accounting practices is well known.

The lesson is clear: if you're a middle class schmoe try to hide a few thousand bucks from Uncle Sam, congressional Republicans are appalled at your use of unfair loopholes. But if you're a millionaire and a potential campaign contributor, congressional Republicans will cry into their beers about how unfair it is that class warriors continually vilify you for your use of perfectly legal tax planning services. F. Scott Fitzgerald was right, wasn't he?

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YOUR DATA IS YOU....The Washington Post editorializes today about the nearly daily reports of personal information being lost or stolen from the vaults of America's biggest corporations:

What's needed is not extra regulation but a bigger effort to give that regulation bite. Tougher enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission and other regulators would be a start. Legal liability might be another helpful weapon: Courts in Michigan and New Hampshire have ruled that corporations can be held liable for the damages resulting from lost information, and other jurisdictions will probably follow.

That's pathetic. The only reason we even know about most of these thefts is because a few years ago California (and now a few other states) began requiring companies to notify their customers when their personal data is lost. It's only that regulation that's even brought this problem to light, but the Post apparently thinks that's plenty. No new regulation is needed. And certainly not federal level regulation, which is what makes the most sense since this is clearly a national problem.

Their notion that "legal liability might be another helpful weapon" is a little better, but doesn't go nearly far enough. How about property rights instead? Why not grant people property rights over any substantial assemblage of their own personal data? Corporations would no longer be allowed to change, disseminate, or even collect personal data in the first place without specific authorization, and if the data were lost or stolen consumers have the same legal remedies they have if a bank loses their money or safe deposit box. That would pretty much eliminate ID theft and would give corporations plenty of incentive to keep their data safe.

So how about it, libertarians? You're the property rights guys. How about calming down over the very 20th century Kelo decision and turning your attention instead to the biggest property rights issue of the 21st century?

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAME UPDATE....Time Inc. says it's going to turn over Matthew Cooper's notes to Valerie Plame prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Says Time:

The same Constitution that protects the freedom of the press requires obedience to final decisions of the courts and respect for their rulings and judgments. That Time Inc. strongly disagrees with the courts provides no immunity.

No word from Judith Miller on what she's going to do. But Robert Novak piped up:

Meanwhile, columnist Robert Novak, who was the first to identify CIA officer Valerie Plame in print, told CNN he "will reveal all" after the matter is resolved, adding that it is wrong for the government to jail journalists.

More to come later, I'm sure.

UPDATE: I really have to learn to check the blog in the morning before I start posting. I see that Paul was on this half an hour ago.

Kevin Drum 11:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

ILLEGIBILITY DEFENSE... Time magazine has agreed to hand over journalist Matt Cooper's notes from his reporting on the Valerie Plame leak story. Maybe this will keep my friend Matt out of jail. I hope so. Whether it will help the prosecutor's case is a different question. As Steve Waldman of beliefnet.com just reminded me via IM, Matt's handwriting is virtually illegible.

By the way, those of you who have written in comments that Matt ought to be in leg irons for protecting White House criminals need to understand that, as Jack Shafer has noted, Matt's story was expressly written to draw attention to the fact that a crime may have been committed. In my book, that's good journalism.

Paul Glastris 10:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MILANESE RENDITION....Dana Priest reports that Italian intelligence knew all about the CIA kidnapping of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr that has police in Milan so upset. If this is true it's not altogether surprising, nor is it surprising that they didn't inform local police when the snatch took place. But it does seem a little surprising that they haven't bothered to cool things down since the Milanese police started investigating things. I suspect there's going to end up being more to this story than meets the eye.

Kevin Drum 1:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRANIAN POLITICS....This has mostly been news on the right wing of the blogosphere, so you might have missed it, but apparently the new president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was once head of security for the Office for Strengthening of Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries, a group that played a key role in the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. The pictures on the right show Ahmadinejad then and now.

I picked up the story here, and there are more pictures and additional background here. Apparently kidnapping American embassy workers qualifies as "playing to the base" in Iranian elections.

I'm not sure that this really matters a lot, since Ahmadinejad has been routinely described as ultra conservative all along and it's pretty obvious that neither he nor the clerics who actually run Iran have any love lost for the United States. But it's an interesting tidbit anyway and I thought you might be interested.

UPDATE: Associated Press reports that several former hostages have identified Ahmadinejad as one of their captors, but that several of the hostage takers deny it, as does one of Ahmadinejad's close aides. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE....Since I've been getting a surge in email on the subject of trolls, I guess I might as well write a post about it and get it over with.

Question: Can't I do something about some of the more annoying trolls in the comment section?

Answer: No, not really. The only tool I have to ban commenters is via their IP address, and this is generally useless. Very few people have fixed IP addresses, and all they have to do is reboot to get a new one.

I do have the ability to delete comments, of course, but this is a lot harder than it sounds. I write a lot of posts and get a lot of comments, and patrolling them is literally a full time job. What's more, the obsessive commenters are simply more willing to dedicate their lives to this than I am. If I delete their comments, they often go on a rampage and start spamming the comment section with dozens of copies of their posts. I don't have any tools at my disposal to stop this.

For now, I can only repeat the standard (and best) advice for dealing with trolls: ignore them. They want attention, and when you reply to their posts you just encourage them to post further. For trolls, the whole point of writing incendiary, insulting, or racist remarks is to hijack the thread and get people to react to them. If you don't, they'll eventually get bored and go away.

Kevin Drum 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TOM CRUISE'S DANGEROUS CLOWN SHOW....Here's the latest on Scientology from Tom Cruise:

Hollywood actor Tom Cruise not only battles creatures from outer space in his latest film "War of the Worlds", he also believes aliens exist, he told a German newspaper on Wednesday.

Asked in an interview with the tabloid daily Bild if he believed in aliens, Cruise said: "Yes, of course. Are you really so arrogant as to believe we are alone in this universe?

....Many scientologists feel they are unfairly criticized, arguing that although many believe in the concept of aliens, it is not such an unreasonable proposition.

I'm actually getting a little tired of Cruise and Scientology being treated as some kind of cutesy human interest story. Matt Yglesias alluded to this earlier today, but if someone wants to really interview Cruise about space aliens they should ask him a few questions like these:

  • Mr. Cruise, do you believe that 75 million years ago an evil galactic ruler named Xenu deposited trillions of paralyzed alien bodies on earth and then destroyed them with H-bombs?

  • Mr Cruise, do you believe that the souls of these creatures, known as "thetans," inhabit the bodies of present day humans?

  • Mr. Cruise, do you believe that "clearing" our bodies of these thetans is the key to mental stability? Is that the reason Scientologists believe that psychiatry and antidepressive drugs are damaging and unnecessary?

This is crackpot stuff, and there's plenty more available on the internet about Scientology and the origins of its decades long crusade against the mental health profession all accessible with a few minutes of googling to any reporter willing to take the trouble. Try here, here, here, and here for starters. Or, if it's only the mainstream media you'll trust, there's this and this. If the media stopped treating this like a bit of chuckleheaded fun and asked Cruise some real questions, Americans might be a wee bit less tolerant of his dangerous and dishonest clown show.

Kevin Drum 11:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOWNING STREET WOES....Tony Blair says the Downing Street Memos are getting altogether too much attention:

"The trouble with having a political discussion on the basis of things that are leaked is that they are always taken right out of context. Everything else is omitted from the discussion and you end up focusing on a specific document," he said.

Well, look, if that's your big problem with the memos then the solution is easy: release all the rest of the internal working documents on Iraq and let the public decide for itself what kind of story they tell. In the meantime, if you're not willing to do that, you'd best stop whining that we're all focusing too much attention on the small number of documents we do have.

Kevin Drum 7:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A PLAN FOR WITHDRAWAL....William Saletan has an interesting column in Slate today that analogizes a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq to the scheduled withdrawal of benefits enacted by welfare reform in 1996. By providing the Iraqis with the open ended "welfare" of troop protection, he says, we're removing their incentive to provide for themselves:

What have the assembly's Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders done for the past five months? Bickered over every petty dispute. How much of the constitution have they drafted? Zip. Why are they bickering instead of buckling down? Because they can. Because they don't have to cut fast deals, meet the deadline, and give every faction a stake in the government to hold off the insurgency. They don't have to do these things, because 140,000 American troops are propping them up.

Saletan may be on to something. Like the Iraqis, the California legislature virtually never meets its constitutionally mandated goal of producing a budget by June 30. Instead, they bicker like children for months on end, barely even stopping for breath when the end of June sails by and newspaper editorialists begin their annual chitter-chatter of indignation.

But what happens next? Answer: they come up with a budget. When? Usually just in time to keep the schools from shutting down. That would piss people off, after all.

In other words, artificial deadlines don't mean much, and Iraqis know this just as well as Sacramento politicos. Real deadlines, on the other hand, the kind that lead to real consequences, produce action.

So here's the deal: the Iraqi transitional assembly is supposed to have a constitution drafted by August 15. Let's announce that troop withdrawals will start on September 15.

The constitution is supposed be put up for a vote on October 15. Let's announce that the second round of troop withdrawals will commence on November 15.

Elections for a government under the new constitution are supposed to be held on December 15. Let's announce that the third round of withdrawals will begin on January 15, 2006. After that, withdrawals will continue in an orderly way until the coalition presence is completely gone.

If the Iraqis ask for an extension, as the transitional law allows them to do, we should agree to push all these dates forward by an additional month. This sends a clear message: make the deals you need to make. Form a government. Get your troops trained. Because by the end of 2006, after nearly four years of war and occupation, coalition troops will be gone.

This doesn't mean the end of American help. Postwar aid has proven crucial to promoting stability and democracy in the aftermath of past conflicts, so we have every reason to be generous in providing reconstruction assistance of all kinds to the Iraqis. But it's time to let them know in a credible way that we aren't going to be there forever. Maybe that's just the motivation they need.

Kevin Drum 3:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SHORTCHANGING THE VA....Incompetence, self-delusion, or political cowardice? You be the judge:

The Bush administration disclosed yesterday that it had vastly underestimated the number of service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and warned that the health care programs will be short at least $2.6 billion next year unless Congress approves additional funds.

Michael Froomkin votes for cowardice:

I suspect this is worse than incompetence: This shortfall may not be unexpected at all. I wouldnt be surprised if it were intentional. By not appropriating money in the regular or even the supplemental Iraq appropriation, the administration avoided having to admit they expected any casualties in Iraq much less estimating how many there might be.

It sounds like a combination of all three to me. It's one more piece of evidence that the Bushies really did expect a cakewalk in Iraq and didn't bother planning for additional casualties. Then, when it became impossible to ignore the truth any longer, they stalled, afraid to tacitly produce an estimate for future casualties that conflicted with their rosy public message that things were getting better all the time. Finally, a couple of months ago, they ran out of options.

This is a pathetic performance from an administration that pretends to care about national security. Bush can give all the primetime speeches he wants about his duty to our troops, but stuff like this makes it obvious that he's willing to throw that duty aside if it means taking even a tiny political risk on their behalf. What's more, congressional Republicans, who have been warned about this repeatedly by both Democrats and fellow Republicans, are equally culpable, despite their shocked professions of anger and embarrassment yesterday.

War supporters, of course, will now join hands and say it was all just an honest mistake. I can't wait.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MATH FOLLOWUP....Normally I'd just post this as an update, but it seems like it deserves a separate post of its own. Yesterday I excerpted a Diane Ravitch op-ed about mathematics textbooks from the Wall Street Journal. One of the paragraphs in the op-ed was this one:

In a comparison of a 1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 "contemporary mathematics" textbook, Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics. In the 1973 book, for example, the index for the letter "F" included factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions and functions. In the 1998 book, the index listed families (in poverty data), fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises and fund-raising carnival.

That sounded pretty amusing indeed, but last night I got the following via email:

The 1998 "contemporary mathematics" textbook referenced [by Ravitch] actually has two distinct indexes one is called Index of Contexts, the other is called Index of Mathematical Topics. Now, let's see, in which index might a discerning reviewer look for a list of mathematical topics that start with the letter "F"?

This seems to be a hard question for Ravitch, Evers, and Clopton. They chose to look in the Index of Contexts. Let's use a bit more insight and look in the Index of Mathematical Topics. Under the letter "F" we find the following topics listed for this integrated mathematics textbook: Faces, Face-views (3-D drawing), Finding equations (using points, using regression, using situation, using slope and intercept), Five-number summary, Formula (area, perimeter, surface area), Four-color problem, Fractal, Fractional exponents, Frequency table, Front view (3-D drawing), and Function.

I don't know if Ravitch is an innocent victim of deliberate deception by Evers and Clopton, or if she knew what they were up to and passed it along anyway. In either case, it seems as if she and the Wall Street Journal owe their readers a retraction.

UPDATE: I emailed Ravitch about this. Here is her response:

Does the 1998 math book have two indexes? I don't know. The reason I cited Clopton and Evers was that I was taking the reference from a book chapter that they wrote. If I had done the research myself, I would not have cited them.

I have never seen a book with two indexes, but I suppose it is possible.

The reference to the NCTM standards is correct, however. The 1989 NCTM standards ignited a "math war" because of their neglect of basic skills. While I was sitting on the board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 1997-2004, there was a regular tug-of-war between the math educators who wanted children to use calculators and their critics, who thought that children should internalize the basic skills and not rely on a calculator to do the computation for them.

As for the reality of "ethnomathematics," I suggest that you google the term. Last time I looked, there were about 28,000 references to it. An acquaintance at the University of Alaska told me that a colleague there has received millions from the National Science Foundation to create a program in "Eskimo mathematics."

Hmmm. If I google "Kevin Drum" I get over 500,000 hits, so I'm not sure that's such a great indication of vast influence. In any case, I suppose my next step is to try to contact either Clopton or Evers.

UPDATE 2: Yet more here.

Kevin Drum 2:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

REPORTERS AND SOURCES....On Monday I wrote a post in favor of a federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to reveal their sources in court. Cruising around the blogosphere on Tuesday I saw a lot of resistance to this idea, so I'd like to take a crack at persuading a few more people that shield laws are a good thing. Here are some of the most frequent responses I saw.

Why should only reporters get a special privilege? The rest of us have to testify in court whether we like it or not

It's not just reporters. Physicians aren't required to testify against their patients because, as a matter of public policy, we think the value of having sick people get medical help outweighs the value of doctors testifying in criminal cases. Lawyers have a similar privilege with their clients because we believe that the right to a vigorous defense would be compromised if clients couldn't confide in their attorneys. Priests, therapists, and psychiatrists also enjoy various degrees of immunity.

There's a parallel public policy argument for reporter-source privilege. In a free society, the press plays a unique role as a government watchdog, and they can only play that role effectively if they're able to promise confidentiality to sources, most of whom would be unwilling to talk to reporters unless they knew they were protected from reprisals. In theory, reporters could still do their jobs without anonymous sources, but in practice their sources would dry up if they felt their anonymity was in danger and the government would then gain a huge advantage in its ability to operate in secret. That's too big a big price to pay. Watergate would probably still be a third rate burglary if Mark Felt had been worried that Nixon's Justice Department could haul Bob Woodward into court and force him to disclose who Deep Throat was.

So reporters should never have to testify about anything?

Of course not. Even doctors and lawyers don't have absolute immunity, and neither would reporters. For starters, only information gained as part of their job would be privileged. Gossip overheard at a party or eyewitness testimony unrelated to their job wouldn't be.

Most states have shield laws for reporters, and the details of what's covered varies from state to state. A federal law would spell out the limits of reporter-source privilege too.

If reporters get a special privilege, courts will have to decide who counts as a reporter and they'll probably exclude bloggers yet again. That's unfair.

This is a terrible argument against a shield law. It essentially advocates ditching support for an important First Amendment principle just because a court somewhere might someday decline to give it to one of us.

Keep in mind that standalone ranting didn't start with blogs, and courts have had to decide questions like this before. If you mimeograph a quarterly newsletter with an audience of 100, are you a reporter? Courts will have to make judgments about these things, and I suspect that in most cases bloggers will be covered. But even if they aren't, reporter-source privilege is still a principle worth supporting.

Protecting a source who's a whistleblower is one thing, but the person who outed Valerie Plame was breaking the law, and doing it solely for partisan revenge.

Almost all whistleblowers break the law, if only by handing over government property and often the laws they break are more serious. If you force reporters to testify against any source who has broken the law, most sources will dry up.

As for the motive of the leaker in the Valerie Plame case, it's hard to hang your hat on that. After all, who gets to decide which leakers are acting from virtuous motives and which ones aren't? One man's patriot is another man's traitor.

If you support free speech, you support it regardless of whether somebody is saying something you like. Likewise with reporter-source privilege, you have to support it regardless of whether you like the motives of the leaker. There's really no other way.

It's worth keeping in mind that reporters already have a hard time keeping sources confidential. There's a pretty good chance, for example, that Matt Cooper's subpoena came only after prosecutors had subpoenaed his phone records and discovered who he had talked to.

We may not like the fact that White House operatives are (so far) getting away with outing Valerie Plame, but there's a larger principle at stake. Most whistleblowers are simply not willing to tell their stories to reporters unless they know their identities will be kept secret, and keeping that assurance credible is a lot more important than the outcome of any single case. A well written federal shield law would accomplish that.

Kevin Drum 2:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH'S SPEECH....That was sure a....ho hum speech. I thought it was supposed to be about our strategy to win in Iraq, but he offered nothing new at all. Our commanders say we don't need any more troops, a timeline for withdrawal is bad, and democracy is on the march. Plus, as usual, no outright promise that we won't leave any permanent bases in Iraq.

Beyond that, nothing but the usual rah rah. No wonder the networks were hesitant about televising it.

Transcript here.

Kevin Drum 8:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NEW NEW MATH....Today's topic is the teaching of mathematics to eager young minds. First up is Diane Ravitch:

Mathematics is being nudged into a specifically political direction by educators who call themselves "critical theorists." They advocate using mathematics as a tool to advance social justice. Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction. One of its precepts is "ethnomathematics," that is, the belief that different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and that students will learn best if taught in the ways that relate to their ancestral culture.

From this perspective, traditional mathematics the mathematics taught in universities around the world is the property of Western civilization and is inexorably linked with the values of the oppressors and conquerors. The culturally attuned teacher will learn about the counting system of the ancient Mayans, ancient Africans, Papua New Guineans and other "nonmainstream" cultures.

Well, that sounds pretty silly, doesn't it? And Ravitch also has a pretty amusing anecdote about looking up the letter "F" in math texts from 1973 vs. 1998.

[UPDATE: Apparently this anecdote is actually a deliberate fabrication. Details here.]

Unfortunately, what Ravitch's piece lacks is any evidence that the critical theorists are actually having any influence. They make pretty good punching bags, but I'd like to see some evidence that anyone is seriously listening to them before I start panicking.

Elsewhere, Joanne Jacobs is unhappy that Virginia will no longer require teachers (other than math teachers) to pass a math test in order to get a teaching credential:

Here are "advanced math" test prep questions for Praxis I, which is being abandoned. Thirty-five years out of high school, I can do these problems in my head. It's hard to believe there are people smart enough to teach who can't pass a basic math test. How are they going to average students' grades?

The Praxis prep questions seem a bit odd to me, although I can't quite pin down why (except for Question 16, which seems unanswerable with the information given). More to the point, though, I have to admit that even though the questions aren't really all that grueling, it's hard to figure out why I should care if a high school English teacher has forgotten how to use scientific notation. There are probably lots of university English professors who have forgotten how exponents work too, and no one cares about that.

And yet this seems like the wrong answer to me. My instinct is on Joanne's side. So I'll open this up for comments since, oddly enough, you guys seem to enjoy talking about math education. Tell me where I've gone wrong.

Kevin Drum 6:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GAYS IN THE MILITARY....I actually agree with the overall gist of Christopher Hitchens' latest column in Slate. He argues that it's absurd to think you've scored some kind of withering putdown of war supporters by pointing out that most of them (and their sons) haven't volunteered for duty. Since I support police, fire, and social welfare programs despite the fact that I'm not a police officer, a firefighter, or a social worker, I think he's right on this.

So fine. We agree. But where the hell did this aside ooze up from?

Come to think of it, what happened to the loud and widespread demand that gays be allowed to serve in uniform? Surely that was not just a Clinton-era campaign to be dropped in favor of gay marriage at just the time when the country needed troops in Afghanistan (generally agreed) and in Iraq (much disputed)?

I don't intend a taunt in the above sentence (it's more of a tease, really, as well as a serious question to which I have heard no answer)....

That's a serious question? It's true that the president of the United States and his extremist Christian pals have lately given us other things to worry about on the gay rights front, but I'm pretty sure that allowing gays to serve openly in the military is still part of the liberal agenda. My last post on the subject was only two months ago, and I'm sure a quick Google search would turn up plenty of other references especially if you make "linguist" one of your search terms.

Where does he get this stuff?

Kevin Drum 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOWNING STREET SUMMARY....Glenn Frankel has a pretty decent summary of the Downing Street Memos on the front page of the Washington Post today. It's worth checking out if you haven't followed the DSM closely and need a refresher.

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NYT OP-EDS....An email I got just reminded me of something: I stopped linking and commenting on New York Times op-eds six weeks ago.

I'm curious: Has anyone noticed? Do you miss it? Do you care?

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TAPPAHANNOCK....Remember a couple of years ago when Homeland Security bumped up the terror alert level and suggested that terrorists might be targeting the unlikely locale of Tappahannock, Virginia? Where did Tappahannock come from, anyway? NBC News has the story:

For weeks, America was on edge as security operations went into high gear. Almost 30 international flights were canceled, inconveniencing passengers flying Air France, British Air, Continental and Aero Mexico.

But senior U.S. officials now tell NBC News that the key piece of information that triggered the holiday alert was a bizarre CIA analysis, which turned out to be all wrong.

CIA analysts mistakenly thought they'd discovered a mother lode of secret al-Qaida messages. They thought they had found secret messages on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language television news channel, hidden in the moving text at the bottom of the screen, known as the "crawl," where news headlines are summarized.

Among the geographic coordinates the CIA thought were hidden in the Al-Jazeera crawl were those of the White House, the Space Needle, and....Tappahannock. Or maybe Rappahannock. Or something.

It was a false alarm, though. Al-Jazeera, it turns out, wasn't acting as a conduit for Al-Qaeda after all.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE LOTT....Sigh. Another op-ed from John Lott in the LA Times today. I wish they had the self respect to quit publishing his stuff.

UPDATE: I sometimes forget that not everyone has followed the John Lott saga. Nickel version: the guy's been caught in so many brazen attempts at dishonesty that he's forfeited the right to be taken seriously. I have no idea whether today's op-ed presents his data fairly or not, but that's the whole point: I have no idea, and neither does the Times. They shouldn't be willing to publish stuff by a guy with his record.

For more details, you can search for "John Lott" on this site or, for the definitive version, go read Tim Lambert.

Kevin Drum 12:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

POLL WATCH.... CNN reports today that George Bush's approval rating is an anemic 45% and his disapproval rating is an all-time high 53%. To memorialize that, here's a pleasant bedtime picture: Professor Pollkatz's poll roundup showing Bush's long, steady slide into oblivion. It was briefly interrupted last year by a few hundred million dollars in advertising, but with the fantasy machine now on hiatus there's nothing but bad news as far as the eye can see. Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.

Kevin Drum 12:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FILE SHARING IN THE FUTURE....I have a thought experiment I'd like to propose to everyone who thinks that the trillion dollar content industry doesn't really need any additional help from the Supreme Court in their relentless battle to crucify teenagers who are trading a few songs for their iPods.

Here it is: The year is 2015 and Columbia has just released Spiderman 7. The next day, 10 million people with no technical savvy at all go to their computers, stick a Blu-ray disc into their DVD drive, log on to Movies4Free (incorporated in the Cayman Islands), and click on the Spiderman icon. Three minutes later they have a 100% perfect DVD, beautifully silkscreened in the drive with the movie logo. They go to their living rooms and start watching.

Or, it might not even be that difficult. Maybe you just turn on your TV, click the mouse a couple of times, and the movie plays.

So here's my question. I think this is pretty much where we're headed. As bandwidth increases, DVD technology improves, and software becomes as easy to use as a toaster, every piece of digital content on the planet will be available within minutes. It's possible that the movie industry could survive for a while based on the dwindling band of old farts who like to sit in theaters, but that's about it. Unless a movie has enough cross-promotional potential to make the production worthwhile all by itself, it will be impossible to make any money in the movie industry. Ditto for music.

Is this OK? Or do you have a different vision for the future? If profit-based movie/music distribution becomes essentially impossible, do you think the content industry will somehow adapt and get its revenue elsewhere? Or will content creators continue creating but just make a lot less money at it? Or what?

I'm genuinely curious about this. I'm willing to concede that the content industry is handling the digital revolution badly, but at the same time I also suspect they may be seeing the future a bit more clearly than their opponents which explains much of the panic they feel. Do you agree? Disagree? Or do you think I'm asking the wrong question altogether? Comments are open.

POSTSCRIPT: Chris Nolan has more on this: "The Supreme Court has given geek determinism the often adolescent belief that technology will triumph and that anything that stands in its way is lame, brain dead, foolhardy and stupid a well-deserved smack upside the head."

Matt Yglesias weighs in too, and I expect he'll have more to say over the next few days.

UPDATE: Matt responds here.

Kevin Drum 12:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 27, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

COOPER AND MILLER REDUX....Should reporters Matt Cooper and Judith Miller go to jail for refusing to reveal their sources in the Valerie Plame case? A reader wants to know where I stand:

Your blog is my single favorite site on the Internet, which is why I hope you'll clarify whether you actually agree with the idiotic statement posted by Charles Peters. If you don't, his statement shouldn't be allowed to soil your blog. If you do, I'm sure you'll be able to explain why in a much more articulate and thoughtful way.

How can I resist an appeal like that? My answer is pretty simple:

  • No, I don't agree with Charlie (or, apparently, the entire rest of the Monthly staff). I've never met either Matt Cooper or Judith Miller, but I don't think their personal likability should be an issue one way or the other in this case.

  • Despite that, I agree 100% with Garance Franke-Ruta and Armando that liberal blog readers ought to change their tune on this issue posthaste. You either support the right of reporters to shield their sources or you don't, and your opinion shouldn't vary based on whether (a) you dislike the reporters in question or (b) you'd like the information they're hiding to become public because you think it would be embarrassing to George Bush.

As it happens, I favor the passage of a federal shield law for reporters that would protect their right to conceal their sources. Today, we don't have one (although most states do). If Miller and Cooper are sent to jail, it will have a chilling effect on the ability of reporters to aggressively cover government malfeasance, and in the end I think that's way more important than the details of this particular case. God knows we don't need the press to become even more timid than they already are on this score.

Senators Christopher Dodd and Richard Lugar make a good case for a federal shield law here. I highly recommend reading it before laughing too hard over the prospect of Judith Miller in leg irons.

Kevin Drum 8:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICANS ON THE ATTACK....Jeez, leave the computer for a little while and Republicans go nuts. Rick Santorum is blaming "cultural liberalism" for priestly pedophile; Joe Barton is harassing scientists who have the temerity to publish results he finds inconvenient; Tom Davis is, um, suggesting that Major League Baseball should know better than to sell a team to a known liberal; and Tom DeLay has petulantly declined to show up for his weekly Q&A because Democrats keep insisting that the House Ethics Committee ought to conduct actual ethics invesigations.

Have I missed anything? Honest, I was only gone for three hours.

Kevin Drum 7:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

DON'T SEND MATT COOPER TO PRISON... The Supreme Court has declined to hear the case of journalists Matt Cooper and Judith Miller and their refusal to reveal their sources to prosecutors in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. Federal district court chief judge Thomas F. Hogan is expected to hear arguments this week about when and how the reporters will serve their time. The special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, is expected to request the two go to jail immediately.

Charles Peters, founding editor of The Washington Monthly, has written this item, which speaks for all of us at the magazine:

Matthew Cooper is threatened with jail for refusing to reveal a source. The special prosecutor does not have to recommend jail, and even if he does recommend it, the judge can ignore it. Although we believe Matt is right in refusing to identify his source, that is not the argument that we make here. Our concern is to keep him out of jail. Matt is not only a fine reporter, he is a caring husband and father, a kind and thoughtful friend, and an all-round good citizen. And he has a marvelous sense of humor. Wait a minute, what relevance does his sense of humor have, you ask. Unlike many who share his comic gift, Matt laughs at himself. He is incapable of the self-righteousness that seeks martyrdom. If the prosecutor and judge can approach this case in the same spirit without self-righteousness, they will see that even if they disagree with Matt, he has good reason for taking his stand. There is a total absence of criminal intent on his part. He should not be put in jail. Criminals belong in jail, not Matthew Cooper. How about house arrest for a monthor, even better, a week? That way, the authorities can be loyal to their principle while respecting Matt's loyalty to his.

If you agree, please write Judge Thomas Hogan appealing for a merciful sentence. Do not tell the judge hes wrong about the law. Just concentrate on Matts personal character and family situations, explaining why he should not be put in jail.

The Honorable Thomas F. Hogan
Chief Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse
333 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001

Paul Glastris 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DECLARATION OF WAR....Michael Smith, the reporter who originally published the Downing Street Memos, has been saying for a while that the real story of the memos is the fact that the U.S. and Britain tried to goad Saddam Hussein into war by stepping up their bombing campaign of Iraq's no-fly zones nine months before we actually invaded. Barbara O'Brien is outraged:

We're not just talking about wussy, Frenchified international law here. We're talking about violation of all-American, red-white-and-blue constitutional law; a bare-assed usurpation of power that the Constitution says belongs to Congress.

Actually, that's almost certainly not the case. This is similar to what happened in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson used a trumped up incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to get a resolution from Congress giving him the power to do pretty much anything he wanted in Vietnam which he did. In 1973, after nine years to cogitate over how this had turned out, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which requires the president to inform Congress within forty-eight hours of military action in a hostile area. Troops must be removed within 60 to 90 days unless Congress approves of the action or declares war.

So the increased bombing was probably quite legal. Patrolling the Iraqi no-fly zones was approved by Congress long ago, and stepping up activity a bit is almost certainly within the president's commander-in-chief authority. I doubt that any legal scholar would even try to argue otherwise.

What's more, it's probably even worse than that. In practice, presidents have long ignored the War Powers Act, and Congress has studiously done nothing about it. As for declaring war, forget it. The United States hasn't formally declared war on another country since the end of World War II.

If liberals wanted to team up with originalist conservatives on something, I think changing this would be a worthwhile project. It's certainly the case that the president needs to have the authority to respond quickly to events, and it's equally the case that Congress doesn't want to get involved in every minor use of American troops abroad.

But there ought to be a limit. In the case of a major foreign war involving detailed planning and serious numbers of troops, the president ought to be required to get a declaration of war from Congress. Defining "major war" isn't a trivial task, but it's not impossible either. Since 1990, the United States has been involved in at least four major wars the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq which should have required a declaration of war. None of them got it.

One of the great travesties of the Iraq war is that Congress passed a "use of force" resolution in October 2002 and then passed the buck to the president to decide if and when its conditions for war had been met. Five months later we invaded Iraq without Congress doing anything further aside from approving some budgetary items. This allowed many members of Congress mostly Democrats to argue disingenuously that, sure, they approved the October resolution, but they didn't approve of the war as George Bush prosecuted it. They felt the conditions of the resolution hadn't been satisfied.

Frankly, they shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. It's one thing to pass a use of force resolution or to approve funding for a troop buildup. But when it comes time to pull the trigger and go to war, Congress should explicitly approve it without conditions. Based on its own evaluation of current facts on the ground, Congress should either approve military action at that point in time or not. This puts our elected representatives on the record about the act itself, and that's as it should be. It's long past time for Congress to stop ducking its constitutional responsibility.

Kevin Drum 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AVIAN FLU....Melanie Mattson has started up an Avian Flu wiki. It's a good resource to go alongside Tyler Cowen's Avian Flu blog. Check them both out if you're interested in avian flu which you probably should be.

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PROPERTY IS THEFT?....Squeezed in between today's shocking news from the Supreme Court that no one is planning to retire, the justices also managed to hand down a few new decisions on matters of public import. The blogosphere, which generally seems to believe that file sharing companies ought to be wholly immune to the statutes of the United States based on the "insanely great technology" exemption of the 14th amendment, was especially unhappy over the court's unanimous ruling that file sharing companies can, in fact, be sued if they incite their customers to break the law.

The ruling seems pretty unexceptional to me, though. Here's the key sentence:

"We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by the clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court.

Italics mine. In any other field, that would be considered a pretty high bar to meet, so I'm not sure what the problem is. If gun manufacturers took out TV ads suggesting that their products could be used to assassinate world leaders, the law would probably take a dim view of that too.

Bottom line: as near as I can tell, all that the Grokster/StreamCast/BitTorrent nitwits need to do is quit yammering excitedly about how great their products are as a way of ripping off The Man. If they just enforce rigid message discipline emphasizing only the legal benefits of their goods, everything will be OK.

And how should they do this? My advice is to hire a few executives from tobacco companies to show them how it's done. A lot of them are probably looking for work these days, and they know this routine cold.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAMEGATE UPDATE....TalkLeft passes along the news that on Monday the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to hear the appeals of Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper in the Valerie Plame case. My uninformed guess: they'll decline. Miller and Cooper will then either cooperate or be packed off to jail.

UPDATE: Yep, they declined. Miller and Cooper now face up to 18 months in prison unless they cooperate.

Kevin Drum 12:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DIET ADVICE....This Danish study of Finnish dieters really seems too good to be true:

Analysis of the data showed that those who wanted to lose weight and succeeded were significantly more likely to die young than those who stayed fat.

....Those who gained weight also had a greater risk of dying young.

In other words, you're best off staying exactly the way you are. Hooray! This is going to make a lot of diet company CEOs very unhappy.

Of course, there's also the time travel option. Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at King's College London, suggests that the best course of action is never to get fat in the first place: "If you can stop people gaining weight in their 20s and 30s, it seems to have the best outcome in the long term." Thanks, Tom.

Kevin Drum 12:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DECONSTRUCTING DONALD....This is getting pathetic. Here is Donald Rumsfeld defending Dick Cheney's assertion that the Iraq insurgency is in its "last throes":

"If you look up 'last throes,' it can mean a violent last throe," Rumsfeld said on ABC's "This Week." Violence may escalate, he said, because insurgents "have so much to lose between now and December." he said.

I can't even figure out what that's supposed to mean. But unless they've also got a new definition of "last," Cheney and Rumsfeld are both saying that the insurgency is near its end, right? Here's Rumsfeld again:

"Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years," Rumsfeld said on "Fox News Sunday."

Hmmm. That's not how my dictionary defines "last throes." So tell us, Mr. Rumsfeld, were we prepared for this insurgency?

Rumsfeld said Sunday [that before the war] he gave President Bush a list of about 15 things "that could go terribly, terribly wrong before the war started."

....Asked if his list included the possibility of such a strong insurgency, Rumsfeld said: "I don't remember whether that was on there, but certainly it was discussed."

I think we can take that as a "no," especially since there's pretty overwhelming evidence that no one before the war took the possibility of a sustained insurgency seriously, least of all Rumsfeld.

These guys still can't face the reality of what's happened to their lovely little war. They willfully ignored the advice of the uniformed military officers who had actual experience in fighting modern wars, and because of that they didn't know what they were getting into before the war, they didn't know what they were up against after the war, and they're apparently still clueless about what to expect in the future. It's long past time for George Bush to either find someone who's serious about winning this war or else someone who's serious about getting out. Rumsfeld is neither.

Kevin Drum 12:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE NEXT BIG THING....For the past couple of weeks I've been meaning to comment on Rick Perlstein's essay "The Stock Ticker and the Super Jumbo" but never quite got around to it. However, since Henry Farrell and Matt Yglesias had some comments of their own about Rick's essay this weekend, it seems like an opportune time to weigh in. First, though, here's a nickel version of the arguments so far:

  • Rick Perlstein: Democrats need to quit dicking around with "triangulation" and obsessive short-term poll watching, and instead pick a few big ideas and stick with them through thick and thin. People respect that. The actual nature of the big ideas that will revive the party is left as an exercise for the reader.

  • Henry Farrell: Perlstein is on the right track, but there's a bigger point to make: Dems don't just need to pick a few existing issues they can win with, they need to invent some brand new issues that aren't even on the radar screen right now. In much the same way that no one realized that ring-around-the-collar was a problem until Wisk spent a billion dollars on primetime advertising telling us so, Dems need to invent some brand new problems that nobody even realizes are problems yet and then hammer away on them. The nature of these problems is left as an exercise for the reader.

  • Matt Yglesias: Henry Farrell is right: we do need to invent some brand new markets for our political product. And none of this "exercise for the reader" handwaving, either. Here are my choices: (a) economic insecurity and (b) how to combine work and family and not go crazy.

I agree with Rick and Henry. Without trivializing the need for better organization, better messaging, and so forth, I think that big ideas are fundamental to future success. What's more, I don't think we're going to find those big ideas in the economic issues of the past. As Matt points out, America is a really rich country, and while the American middle class may have stagnated over the past 30 years, it's stagnated at a pretty high income level significantly higher than countries like France or Germany, for example. The fact is, Americans just aren't unhappy enough with their lot in life to inspire a mass movement. (This might change if George Bush sends the economy off a cliff, but I'd rather maintain some optimism on that front.)

For that reason, I suspect Matt's suggestions aren't going to cut it even though they both sound pretty appealing to me. The issues he points to are genuine, growing problems, but they aren't really new. I imagine he'll object to this oversimplification, but he's fundamentally arguing that America ought to move in the direction of the European social model. I agree that a certain amount of movement in that direction is inevitable, but I'm under no illusions that this is a breathtaking new idea that's going to take the country by storm.

To which the appropriate reply is: OK, smart guy, so what are the big issues coming down the pike? And there I'm stumped. Issues of economic fairness and personal equality will (and should) remain important underpinnings of liberalism for the foreseeable future, and we need to keep fighting those fights. That's pretty much the whole point of this blog, after all.

Still, these issues have been fought to death over the past 50 years and aren't likely to cause any sea changes in public opinion at this point. What's more, I continue to think that we've won about 80% of these battles, which is why they don't resonate strongly enough to reliably win elections for us any longer. Since the opposite is true for conservatives, who are almost comically bereft of serious new ideas these days, the result is the 50-50 deadlock we've found ourselves in for the past decade.

In other words, the next big thing is going to be something completely different from the ideas that have won elections in the past. But I still don't know what it is.

UPDATE: Over at The American Street, Jeff Alworth has a couple of suggestions. Tony Blair would approve.

Kevin Drum 8:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FEVERISH WALL STREET JOURNAL....This is a few days old, but I'm always glad to see someone taking on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, a wretched assemblage of hackery that's unequalled in America for its dangerous and calculated intellectual dishonesty. Tuesday's abomination was a grade school dissertation on global warming, and the good folks at RealClimate give it the detailed and technical response that it deserves. You can read it here.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FILM NOTES....A few comments about movies I've seen recently:

  • Batman Begins was pretty good, but the main takeaway for me was the realization that Liam Neeson is a really good actor in fantasy-based movies like this. For my money, he gave just about the only decent performance in the entire Star Wars trilogy (the new one, that is) and he was equally good as Ducard in Batman.

  • I've managed to go my entire life without seeing Rebel Without a Cause, so I rented it a couple of nights ago. Having now seen it, I have to wonder how James Dean ever got another role, let alone an outsized reputation as a great actor of his generation. His performance was laughable although, to be fair, the screenplay didn't exactly give him a lot to work with.

  • I also rented Stuey, a movie about Stu Ungar, a legendary card player of the 80s and 90s who died young after years of drug abuse. It was pretty good, and there's a terrific scene in the middle where Stu rattles off every card in an opponent's gin rummy hand without ever seeing it. By coincidence, a biography is hitting the shelves this week and the New York Times has a piece about it in today's paper.

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LA DOLCE VITA....This story about the Italian judge who ordered the arrest of 13 CIA agents for kidnapping Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr is really fascinating. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. On the "laugh" front, there's this:

While most of the operatives apparently used false identities, they left a long trail of paper and electronic records that enabled Italian investigators to retrace their movements in detail. Posing as tourists and business travelers, the Americans often stayed in the same five-star hotels, rarely paid in cash, gave their frequent traveler account numbers to desk clerks and made dozens of calls from unsecure phones in their rooms.

During January 2003, they were regular patrons at the Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan, which bills itself as "one of the world's most luxuriously appointed hotels" and features a marble-lined spa and minibar Cokes that cost about $10. Seven of the Americans stayed at the 80-year-old hotel for periods ranging from three days to three weeks at nightly rates of about $450, racking up total expenses of more than $42,000 there.

But there's a whole lot more on the "cry" front. The LA Times, Washington Post, and New York Times all have essentially identical stories, which means the Italian authorities must have been pretty anxious to get the word out about this. Apparently the Italians are seriously pissed:

By early 2003, the Italian secret police were aggressively pursuing a criminal terrorism case against Mr. Nasr, with the help of American intelligence officials....On Feb. 17, 2003, Mr. Nasr disappeared.

When the Italians began investigating, they said, they were startled to find evidence that some of the C.I.A. officers who had been helping them investigate Mr. Nasr were involved in his abduction.

"We do feel quite betrayed that this operation was carried out in our city," a senior Italian investigator said. "We supplied them information about [Nasr], and then they used that information against us, undermining an entire operation against his terrorist network."

...."The American system is of little use to us," a senior Italian counterterrorism investigator said. "It's a one-way street. We give them what we have, but we are given no useful information that can help us prosecute people."

The evidence so far indicates that at the time of the kidnapping the American agents were working with the full knowledge of the Italian government (or perhaps Italian intelligence):

The former [CIA] station chief [who orchestrated the kidnapping] apparently planned on retiring in Italy and had bought a home near Turin. Although he has been absent from Italy for several months, officials say, his wife had remained in the home, which Italian police raided Thursday night, confiscating a computer, computer disks and papers.

That he thought he could live out his golden years in Italy is another indication of the impunity with which he and the other alleged agents felt they were operating, Italian prosecutors say.

The Italians also allege that the CIA station chief showed up in Cairo five days after the kidnapping, which suggests that he knew exactly where Nasr was being held and what the Egyptians were doing to him.

Read all three stories to get the full picture. Each one has details the others don't, and you need to read them all to get a feel for what's going on. Nobody expects any of the CIA officers to be turned over to the Italians, of course, but the big question still remaining is what happens next: will the Italians treat this like a shot across the bow and let the case die out, or will they use it to embarrass the American government as fully as they can? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IN OTHER NEWS....Gotta love this LA Times headline:

Bush Administration Faces Credibility Problem

It's good to know that someone's finally noticed.

Kevin Drum 1:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BAD OLD DAYS....This is just a trifle, but as long as I have my 1958 copy of Newsweek in front of me, here's another interesting blurb:

HOT SPRINGS, VA. Expecting a good-size drop in the number of jobless, Administration officials are trying to speed up preparation of the October unemployment report. The idea, of course, is to announce it before Election Day next month. Normally, the figures wouldn't be ready until after Nov. 4. Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks says a decline of 600,000, to 3.5 million jobless, is a good possibility.

What a bland, workmanlike announcement! If there were even a hint that the White House was finagling a release date like this today, it would be treated like a minor scandal. Back in 1958, it was treated as a routine and unsurprising piece of political maneuvering.

In a similar vein, it was delightful to learn (from An Unfinished Life) how candid JFK was in trying to get his 1963 economic plan passed on purely political grounds. He wanted to avoid a recession that would hurt Democratic chances in the 1964 election, and apparently felt no particular need to hide this. Today even a backbench congressman from Paducah would be too savvy to fess up to something like that.

I sort of miss this. Sure, it's a good thing that government bureaucrats are more insulated from political pressure than they used to be, but at the same time modern political discourse often seems to have become almost an arid, scholastic parody of itself, with politicians inventing ever more sophisticated evasions to pretend that political motivations are beneath them. In a weird inversion, the rest of us talk about political process obsessively while politicians themselves pretend it doesn't exist.

In a similar way, the strength of political discourse has become increasingly flavorless and insipid as well. Sixty years ago a vice presidential candidate could give a tub thumping speech that inspired the headline "Nazis Prefer GOP" and hardly anyone noticed. Today, Howard Dean and Karl Rove trade a few barbs about each other's party and you'd think we were all going to expire from the heartlessness of it all.

I'm not pining away for the good old days or anything. Still, it's hard not to feel a little nostalgic for a period when politicians didn't spend all their time pretending they weren't politicians. If nothing else, it was a little more colorful.

Kevin Drum 12:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CLINTON AND THE PRESS....Paul McLeary of CJR Daily has an interview with John Harris, author of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, that's worth reading. Here he talks about how reporters felt about covering the Monica affair:

It was a drag. I don't think most people realized I'm sure I don't speak for everybody but I speak for a lot of my colleagues, at least in print, that the whole thing was a drag. We weren't getting into journalism to cover fellatio. I tend to think our actual source of resentment was really toward Clinton himself. Why does he make such a mess of his life in ways that intersect with his public responsibilities such that here we are, spending the whole year writing about blue dresses?

There's more context to this, so check out the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 5:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ATHEISTIC GOVERNORS....A few years ago I bought a copy of Newsweek from the week I was born, but I only got around to reading it a few days ago. The big news: a huge Democratic sweep was predicted in the upcoming midterm elections, a fellow named Barry Goldwater was running for reelection in Arizona, work was said to be underway on a "satellite killer" weapon, TWA and BOAC had just started transatlantic jet service, Ike was reportedly pissed off at Monty's recently released memoirs, Chrysler and Cadillac were dueling over who first introduced tailfins on their cars, Middle Eastern countries were starting to demand more than a 50% split of oil profits, Czanne's "Boy in the Red Vest" sold for a record $616,000, Johnny Unitas was having a good year, the quiz show craze was on its last legs, and Catholics were getting ready to choose a new pope.

But here's my favorite blurb:

LOS ANGELES Culbert Olson, California's last Democratic governor (1939-43), is now 81 and lives modestly on his savings with two widowed sisters in a ten-room stucco house in the Wilshire section here. He is still an avowed left-winger ("The socialistic and atheistic philosophies have been the guiding principles of my life") and is president of the United Secularists of America, which publishes an atheistic journal.

Ain't that a hoot? The president of the United Secularists of America probably couldn't get elected dogcatcher in Berkeley, let alone governor of California these days. How times change.

Kevin Drum 3:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THUNDERBIRD QUERY....I've been using Thunderbird for email for a few months now, and it definitely has some features I like. However, it has one feature I definitely don't: it is awesomely slow and inefficient.

I mean this in a very specific way: if I check email, and then do absolutely nothing for 20 minutes, virtually every piece of code used by Thunderbird apparently gets dumped from physical memory. Click the icon to maximize the screen and the disk thrashes long enough to load 10 or 20 megabytes of code from virtual memory into RAM. Click an email to read it, and it loads another 10 or 20 MB of code. Click the "Junk" icon, ditto. Elapsed time to read and discard one piece of email from a running copy of Thunderbird: about 30 seconds.

And this is if I do nothing except leave the computer to eat lunch. If I actually use another program to do some work, Thunderbird appears to get unloaded from memory after about three or four minutes.

Does anyone have any idea what's going on? Sure, I could probably use some more memory on my PC, but no other program acts like this. Outlook Express certainly didn't. Even graphics programs, which are huge memory hogs, load and execute from scratch faster than Thunderbird does from the taskbar. Any knowledgable suggestions to improve Tbird's memory management would be much appreciated.

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, I know that all my problems would go away if I would just buy a Macintosh or a Linux box. And my sex life would improve and Democrats would win a landslide victory in 2006. Consider me suitably advised.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THIMEROSAL....Does thimerosal in infant vaccines cause autism? As near as I can tell it's impossible to say. The basic evidence in favor is that a few years after thimerosal-based vaccine use increased in the late 80s, diagnoses of autism also began to skyrocket. This is certainly suggestive that thimerosal might be one of the triggering causes of autism (and possibly other neurological disorders as well).

Unfortunately, because the data is sparse and there are lots of other possible explanations, there's no way to say for sure that thimerosal is really at fault. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has taken up the cause recently and believes not only that thimerosal is dangerous but that the federal government, in cahoots with the vaccine industry, has been covering up the danger. (A more detailed version of his case is here.) Lindsay Beyerstein is skeptical of RFK's charges (here and here), and the New York Times reviews the bidding in a front page article today.

It's easy to understand the emotion behind this subject, but it's less clear why Kennedy decided to make it front page news right now. After all, as the Times points out, we're going to know for sure pretty shortly:

In "Evidence of Harm," a book published earlier this year that is sympathetic to the notion that thimerosal causes autism, the author, David Kirby, wrote that the thimerosal theory would stand or fall within the next year or two.

Because autism is usually diagnosed sometime between a child's third and fourth birthdays and thimerosal was largely removed from childhood vaccines in 2001, the incidence of autism should fall this year, he said.

Since thimerosal has already been removed from most infant vaccines, the only issue remaining is whether or not past thimerosal use caused autism. Since that's (a) a very tricky epidemiological question and (b) one that will be answered rather clearly in the next year or two, what's the point of continuing to argue over previous research? Is it just habit?

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NEKKID STATUES....Moral decay has once again taken over the Justice Department:

With barely a word about it, workers at the Justice Department Friday removed the blue drapes that have famously covered two scantily clad statues for the past 3 1/2 years.

....The drapes, installed in 2002 at a cost of $8,000, allowed then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to speak in the Great Hall without fear of a breast showing up behind him in television or newspaper pictures.

$8,000? What were they made of?

Kevin Drum 12:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LATE THOUGHTS ON KELO....So how about that Kelo decision, eh? Everybody but me seems to have commented on it. Why the silence?

I guess I've just had a hard time getting excited about it. In fact, it mostly seems like yet another example of how politics is increasingly being played out on the margins these days. After all, eminent domain itself wasn't at stake: the ability of the government to condemn land for its own use was established in the Bill of Rights. Nor was the ability of government to condemn land and turn it over to private developers at stake. Local redevelopment agencies have been allowed to condemn "blighted" land for urban renewal purposes for decades, and Kelo wouldn't have overturned that.

What's more, the definition of "blighted" has been pretty elastic for a long time. In Los Angeles, the poor-but-not-especially-blighted Chavez Ravine was condemned in the early 50s for a public housing project, but eventually the land was turned over to Walter O'Malley in order to build the privately owned Dodger Stadium. Similarly, in the early 90s, the Texas legislature created a special agency for the sole purpose of condemning land in Arlington so that the city could build a sparkling new stadium for George Bush's Texas Rangers. The Rangers were given control over the stadium and its surroundings plus an option to buy it later at a sweetheart price.

In other words, local governments have been condemning just about anything they want for a long time, and far from heralding the Apocalypse, the results have been pretty mixed. What's more, although in theory Kelo might have halted condemnations like these if it had been decided the other way, I have a feeling that in practice it would have simply required local governments to get ever craftier about their definition of "blight." Now they don't have to worry so much about that.

Still, that might not have been such a bad thing. We often allow ourselves to be influenced by local events more than by abstract legal arguments, and in my case the premier local event in the area of eminent domain was a longrunning battle by the city of Cypress to condemn land purchased by the Cottonwood Church in order to turn it over to CostCo for construction of a superstore. I'll spare you the details, but basically the land in question wasn't blighted by any reasonable definition and the city had shown no interest in it for decades but as soon as Cottonwood purchased it they suddenly decided it was critical to their municipal future. They were also pretty honest about why: they wanted to maximize tax revenues, and the church complex pretty much sucked on that score. A CostCo store would have been far more lucrative.

Of course, the fact that it was a church being shafted made the whole thing a lot sexier than your ordinary eminent domain case, and added to that was "flood the zone" coverage from the Register, Orange County's famously libertarian newspaper (example here). Eventually a federal judge told Cypress to back down the decision was on narrow grounds related to religious freedom and the city worked out a land swap with Cottonwood that left everyone satisfied.

Still, it was a pretty grubby maneuver, and left me thinking that it wouldn't do any harm to let cities know that their power of eminent domain needs to be based on at least slightly more defensible grounds than "we need more tax revenue." If it had gone the other way, it's possible that Kelo might have accomplished that although in practice I suspect it wouldn't have been much more than a shot across the bow.

Whether that warning shot would have been a good idea, I can't say, although obviously I'm sympathetic to the idea. Either way, though, the fact that an awful lot of people are getting so worked up over a decision that probably would have had a fairly small practical effect no matter how it had been decided, says a lot about modern political discourse.

Kevin Drum 7:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT FUNDRAISING....I know different people read this site for different things, and I want to reach out to everyone who reads Political Animal. So this one's for the cat lovers out there: if you haven't donated yet, do it for Inkblot!

You can donate in many different ways. If you want to write an ordinary check, make it out to The Washington Monthly and send it to:

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Last but not least, you can donate via PayPal, using either your PayPal account or a credit card. So many choices!

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By: Kevin Drum

MANUFACTURING UNCERTAINTY....David Michaels writes today in the LA Times about "manufacturing uncertainty." As he says, the Bush administration's war against science isn't so much an effort to argue that scientific research is wrong, so much as it's an effort to toss up enough mud that no one is sure what's really going on:

Manufacturing uncertainty is a business in itself. You too can launch a pretty good campaign. All you need is the money with which to hire one of the main players in the "product-defense industry," many of whose stalwarts first honed their craft defending cigarette smoke. These firms will hire the scientists, throw the mud, crank up the fog machine.

A classic case is beryllium, a lightweight metal useful in nuclear weapons. For many years it has been clear that workers exposed to beryllium levels below the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard can develop chronic beryllium disease.

When OSHA tried to lower the standard, the industry hired Exponent, a leading product-defense firm to focus on all the things we don't understand, calling for more research before OSHA could act. Meanwhile, workers are still exposed at the old, unsafe level, and are still getting sick.

Of course, as Jon Chait points out, this is part and parcel of the overall Republican agenda:

Business is booming because there seemingly are no limits to what Republicans are willing to do on behalf of their constituents....Virtually every element of the Republican agenda has the effect I suspect the intent, but I can't prove that of enriching special interests. Bush has enacted five tax cuts, a Medicare prescription drug bill stuffed with billions in corporate subsidies, tort reform, bankruptcy restrictions, various tariffs and regulatory rollbacks enacted by administration appointees who frequently oversee the industries they once represented.

For more on this, pre-order a copy of Chris Mooney's upcoming The Republican War on Science. It's likely to be a must read.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

THAT'S...OK... Ill admit it. I dont just read Kevin Drum once a day. Or twice. Or three times. Im constantly checking in, throughout the day. Its an obsession, I know, but as Al Frankens Stuart Smalley used to say thatsok.

Some people can work with the radio or TV on. I cant; its too distracting. Instead, I use Political Animal almost like a news source. Its how I keep up, hour by hour, with whats going on, and with what people in the political world are saying.

Of course, what Im really reading is what Kevins saying about all this. But thatsok, because its rare that Kevin says anything that I dont find reasonable. He responds to the things he reads all day the way I think would respond if I had the time to read the material he readsthough the truth is he probably responds better.

There are plenty of other brilliant bloggers whom I read and learn from. But most of them post maybe once a day, for the simple reason that they have day jobs. Kevin used to have one of those, too. But since coming on board The Washington Monthly, hes been free to ply his blogging vocation full time. Which is why theres always so much great material on Political Animal. But while we bring it to you for free, its obviously not free to produce. Kevin needs to pay his mortgage, and buy cat food, and The Washington Monthly is not exactly a behemoth for-profit enterprise. Were an independent non-profit. We survive on the tax-deductible donations of our readers. And thatsok. So if you enjoy Kevin and the magazine, please click on one of the donate buttons on the right or below and give what you can.

Paul Glastris 8:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IS DICK DURBIN A TRAITOR?....I'm a little curious about something related to yesterday's Karl Rove affair. Most of the attention seems to have focused on his "liberals offered therapy and understanding" sentence, but isn't the following passage really the more serious one?

Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.

It's one thing to make belligerent pronouncements that contrast conservative toughness with liberal wimpiness. It's nasty and demeaning, but hardly something we haven't heard before. The Al Jazeera passage, on the other hand, goes considerably further: it says specifically that the motive of Dick Durbin and others who criticize prisoner abuse is to put our troops in danger. He didn't say Durbin was merely careless, he said Durbin wanted to put our troops in greater danger. That's treason.

Generally speaking, I tend not to get too bent out of shape by occasional rhetorical howlers. It's just part of the game. But calling Durbin and his fellow liberals traitors which is clearly what that passage suggests really is beyond the pale coming from a highly placed political official, isn't it? Or am I missing something here?

UPDATE: RNC chair Ken Mehlman offered the bizarrely feeble excuse that "Karl didn't say the Democratic Party. He said liberals." What's up with that? Isn't Dick Durbin a Democrat?

Kevin Drum 12:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL ATTITUDES....Over at Democracy Arsenal, Suzanne Nossel reads the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey so you don't have to. In summary, we're doing slightly better than last year, but we're still pretty unpopular and this unpopularity is apparently spilling over into declining support for the war on terror. Then there's this:

One surprising finding is that in several places like Indonesia and Pakistan, while America's image has improved, American people are held in lower regard than in previous surveys. We've always held to the notion that people around the world separate their views of the U.S. government and policies from their attitudes toward Americans; is this no longer true? Is U.S. public support for policies that are unpopular around the world narrowing the gap? Will that make anti-U.S. feelings more durable?

That sounds about right to me.

Kevin Drum 5:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FACT CHECKING KARL....Just for the record, is Al Jazeera broadcasting Dick Durbin's words about Guantanamo, as Karl Rove said? Abu Aardvark, who reads Arabic and listens to Al Jazeera, says it sure doesn't seem like it.

Kevin Drum 5:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SEPARATED AT BIRTH?....I always figure a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are two pictures....

Kevin Drum 3:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THUGGERY....Karl Rove gave a speech last night. Here's excerpt #1:

Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.

Here's excerpt #2:

Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.

This is patently more despicable than anything Dick Durbin ever said. But note the Republican response to criticism from Democrats:

The White House defended Rove's remarks and accused Democrats of engaging in partisan attacks. Rove, said spokesman Scott McClellan, "was talking about the different philosophies and our different approaches when it comes to winning the war on terrorism."

Far from backing down, McClellan said that Rove was just "telling it like it is when it comes to the different approaches for winning the war on terrorism."

That's how the Republican party plays the game these days: accuse Democrats of being traitors and poltroons, and then, when they're called on it, turn up the volume even higher while simultaneously pretending that they're just talking about "different philosophies." This is McCarthy level thuggery, and one can only hope that Karl Rove meets the same bad end as the junior senator from Wisconsin.

Kevin Drum 2:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REAL NEWS....Michael Smith, the reporter who uncovered the Downing Street Memos, thinks everyone is focusing on the wrong issues. The real news, he says in the LA Times today, is that Tony Blair knew the war was illegal and was fishing around for a way to bait Saddam Hussein into attacking first:

Downing Street had a "clever" plan that it hoped would trap Hussein into giving the allies the excuse they needed to go to war. It would persuade the U.N. Security Council to give the Iraqi leader an ultimatum to let in the weapons inspectors.

Although Blair and Bush still insist the decision to go to the U.N. was about averting war, one memo states that it was, in fact, about "wrong-footing" Hussein into giving them a legal justification for war.

British officials hoped the ultimatum could be framed in words that would be so unacceptable to Hussein that he would reject it outright. But they were far from certain this would work, so there was also a Plan B.

....Another part of the memo...quotes British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon as saying that "the U.S. had already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime." This we now realize was Plan B.

Put simply, U.S. aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone were dropping a lot more bombs in the hope of provoking a reaction that would give the allies an excuse to carry out a full-scale bombing campaign, an air war, the first stage of the conflict.

In the end, Blair's plan didn't work: Hussein declined to react to the increased bombing, and later on he allowed the UN inspectors in and (grudgingly) allowed them to do their job. Of course, as we all know, George Bush had a Plan C....

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CASE FOR OPTIMISM....Max Boot explains today why he thinks the Iraqi insurgency is doomed:

The rebels lack a unifying organization, ideology and leader. There is no Iraqi Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro or Mao Tse-tung....Support for the insurgency is confined to a minority within a minority a small portion of Sunni Arabs, who make up less than 20% of the population.

....Unlike in successful guerrilla wars, the rebels in Iraq have not been able to control large chunks of "liberated" territory....The biggest weakness of the insurgency is that it is morphing from a war of national liberation into a revolutionary struggle against an elected government.

Read the whole thing to get a better sense of his whole argument. I can't say I'm convinced, but it's about the best 700-word version of the optimistic case that I've seen.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE DURBIN FIASCO....I agree with Atrios: the way the whole Dick Durbin thing has played out is disheartening for liberals. Let's count the ways:

  1. For starters, there was nothing actually wrong with what Durbin said. He didn't compare Bush to Hitler, he didn't compare America to Nazi Germany, and he didn't compare Guantanamo to the gulag. He quoted specific cases of prisoner abuse and then pointed out that those specific cases were something you might expect from a totalitarian regime. He said this behavior was unworthy of the United States, and he was right.

  2. Still, Durbin has been in political life for many years and probably should have known better. When your opponents have a long history of demagoguery and smear attacks, you should be careful not to give them additional ammunition. That was mistake #1.

  3. If you do say something, though, you need to stand up for yourself against the schoolyard bullies. Durbin shouldn't have backed down and he shouldn't have apologized. He should have defended himself vigorously. That was mistake #2.

  4. Leading Democrats should have had the guts to back him, and Dick Daley should have kept his mouth shut. Explaining that "the mayor did not realize the impact his remarks would have" doesn't cut it. That was mistake #3.

That's a lot of mistakes for a single paragraph in a single speech. And the biggest mistake of all? That apparently, even after all this time, we've been unable to persuade the country that criticizing prisoner abuse is not a bigger problem than the abuse itself. We should aspire to live up to our ideals, not merely be better than the worst regimes in the world.

UPDATE: In the Chicago Tribune, Chicago native Eric Zorn says the same thing, but says it better.

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE WEEK....Indy racing star Danica Patrick got a telephone call from Formula 1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone last week:

He congratulated the Indy Racing League rookie for her performance at the Indianapolis 500, but also reiterated remarks he had made during an interview at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the U.S. Grand Prix was being held.

Among the comments Ecclestone made in the interview and to the Roscoe, Ill., native was that "Women should be all dressed in white like all other domestic appliances."

I know that Ecclestone is one strange guy, but even for a weirdo misogynist this is just plain fruit loopy. Somebody needs to check Bernie's meds.

Kevin Drum 11:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE FUNDRAISING!....Our creaky technology doesn't provide me with what you'd call up-to-the-second info, but so far we've raised about $6,000 this week and we'd like to get to $10,000. Only $4,000 to go! So if you like the blog, please help us keep it going by kicking in a few bucks. Click the image on the right to donate via our handy web form or to buy a subscription (or a gift subscription). Click the icon below to donate via PayPal. Thanks!

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By: Kevin Drum

NORTH KOREA....Donald Gregg and Don Oberdorfer write in the Washington Post that North Korea's Kim Jong Il might be more willing to make a nuclear deal than we think:

During a visit we made to Pyongyang in November 2002...we were given a written personal message from Kim to Bush declaring: "If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures non-aggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century." Further, he declared, "If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly."

We took the message to senior officials at the White House and State Department and urged the administration to follow up on Kim's initiative, which we have not made public until now. Then deep in secret planning and a campaign of public persuasion for the invasion of Iraq, the administration spurned engagement with North Korea. Kim moved within weeks to expel the inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reopen the plutonium-producing facilities that had been shut down since 1994 under an agreement negotiated with the Clinton administration.

Gregg and Oberdorfer have made similar arguments before about Kim's willingness to deal, although the personal note to Bush is a new wrinkle as is their veiled implication that it was ignored solely because it would have interfered with the administration's PR plan for Iraq.

It's hard to know what to think of all this. Sure, the North Korean regime is unstable and untrustworthy, but on the other hand, they've also been pretty consistent in what they want: some kind of nonaggression guarantee from the United States. For reasons that escape me, nonaggression agreements are considered something of a no-no in diplomatic circles too reminiscent of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? but since we've made verbal nonaggression promises to North Korea on numerous occasions, it's hard to believe we couldn't find some kind of mutually acceptable way to put it in writing too.

So why not call their bluff and and do it? The upside is pretty significant, and the downside seems pretty much nonexistent. No one would blame us if negotiations failed, and in the worst case we'd just be back where we started. It's worth trying.

Kevin Drum 12:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SPONGES....Pacific Views has an interesting update to my post from yesterday about reducing medical errors. As Mary points out, the issue is not one of badgering doctors and nurses to be more careful, it's one of spending the time and money that it takes to systematically figure out what mistakes are most common, how they're made, and what kinds of procedural changes can reduce them. Consider the common surgical sponge, for example....

Kevin Drum 10:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DON'T KNOW NOTHIN....Anne Applebaum is unhappy that although the Smithsonian's Museum of American History has many interesting exhibits, it doesn't try to teach very much actual American history:

That is, it doesn't tell the whole American story, or even chunks of the American story, in chronological order, from Washington to Adams to Jefferson, or from Roosevelt to Truman to Eisenhower. When the museum was built in 1964, this sort of thing probably wasn't necessary. But judging from a group of teenagers whom I recently heard lapse into silence when asked if they could identify Lewis and Clark, I suspect it's now very necessary indeed.

Opinion polls bear out my suspicions. According to one poll, more U.S. teenagers can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. Even fewer can state the first three words of the Constitution.

Applebaum is surely right that Americans don't know their own history very well, but in making her point she hits on one of my pet peeves: a vague and wholly unwarranted assumption that it's only kids who share this ignorance. As near as I can tell, the primary evidence for this is the fact that pollsters are forever being commissioned to survey teenagers on this subject, usually with the express goal of "discovering" that they don't know much about American history. But they never survey anyone else.

So here's a bet I'm willing to make with Applebaum: Hire Frank Luntz to do his "Three Stooges Survey" again, except this time with people of all ages. I'm willing to bet that, overall, the kids do about as well as any other age group.

In the meantime, for anyone who wants to check this on their own, here's a quick test: head down to a street corner and ask random passers by (a) if they can name the Three Stooges, (b) if they can name the first three words of the constitution, and (c) how old they are. Then report back.

POSTSCRIPT: And when we're done, let's do a math test too. I'll bet most adults can't do long division any better than the average teenager.

Kevin Drum 4:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOOM TIMES ON K STREET....Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about K Street in the Washington Post:

The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled since 2000 to more than 34,750 while the amount that lobbyists charge their new clients has increased by as much as 100 percent.

...."There's unlimited business out there for us," said Robert L. Livingston, a Republican former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and now president of a thriving six-year-old lobbying firm. "Companies need lobbying help."

Well, Republicans did say they were dedicated to boosting the economy. They just didn't make it clear what segment of the economy they were talking about.

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ THROUGH ROSE COLORED GLASSES....Via Instapundit, the American Enterprise's Karl Zinsmeister tells us that the war is all but over:

What the establishment media covering Iraq have utterly failed to make clear today is this central reality: With the exception of periodic flare-ups in isolated corners, our struggle in Iraq as warfare is over. Egregious acts of terror will continue in Iraq as in many other parts of the world. But there is now no chance whatever of the U.S. losing this critical guerilla war.

....Policing and political problem-solving are mostly tasks for Iraqis, not Americans. And the Iraqis are taking them up, often with gusto. I saw much evidence that responsible Iraqis are gradually isolating the small but dangerously nihilistic minority trying to strangle their new society. With each passing month, U.S. forces will more and more become a kind of SWAT team that intervenes only to multiply the force of the emerging Iraqi security forces, and otherwise stays mostly in the background.

I can't tell you how much I'd like to believe this. Unfortunately, the "last throes" crowd usually retails their stories with a little bit of local color (cell phones are everywhere!) but few actual facts.

There's a reason for this: the closest thing we have to facts in Iraq is probably the Brookings Institution's monthly "Iraq Index" summaries, and they continue to tell a grim story. The chart on the right shows two different estimates of monthly Iraqi civilian deaths as a result of acts of war, and although the recent drop from March to April was good news, the overall trend is still pretty steadily upward. It's true that U.S. troop casualties have been decreasing for the past few months, but in addition to the increase in Iraqi civilian deaths, Iraqi troop casualties are up, car bombings are up, and the number of daily attacks by insurgents is up. If this is what counts as "over," I'd hate to see what counts as actual war.

UPDATE: There's also this from the New York Times today:

American casualties from bomb attacks in Iraq have reached new heights in the last two months as insurgents have begun to deploy devices that leave armored vehicles increasingly vulnerable, according to military records.

....The insurgents "certainly appear to be surging right now," Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, who leads the anti-I.E.D. task force, said in an interview at Fort Irwin. "Time will tell about their ability to sustain this."

And Lt. Gen. John Vines, the senior operational commander in Iraq, says not to expect any troop drawdown for at least a year.

I really wish things were looking up in Iraq. Unfortunately, non-ideologues on the ground who are genuinely optimistic are pretty hard to find.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ARNOLD IN FREE FALL....Hoo boy. Big trouble for the Governator:

A chastened Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger extended a conciliatory hand Tuesday to California lawmakers, as a new opinion poll showed that voters dislike the governor nearly as much as the highly unpopular Legislature.

Here in California, the popularity of the state legislature usually hovers somewhere between that of the Third Reich and Stalin's Comintern. If Schwarzenegger is closing in on that, he's in big trouble.

POSTSCRIPT: Political Animal apologizes in advance for its references to Hitler and Stalin in this post. We understand that historical analogies can be misinterpreted by some, but it was not our intention to offend anyone except the California legislature. And maybe the governor. But no one else.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FUNDRAISING....Ask and ye shall receive. I got several comments and emails from people asking for an option to donate money via PayPal, so PayPal it is. Just click here:

You can donate via an existing PayPal account or you can use a credit card. This means that your last excuse for not donating aside from lack of money or dislike of the site, of course has now been ripped away. So please help out if you can. My cats will thank you for it!

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POSTWAR IRAQ....Let's continue our look at the Downing Street Memos. Tonight I want to summarize what they say about the Bush administration's postwar plans:

  • David Manning Memo: "From what [Condoleezza Rice] said, Bush has yet to find the answers to the big questions...what happens on the morning after?

    ....I think there is a real risk that the Administration underestimates the difficulties. They may agree that failure isn't an option, but this does not mean that they will avoid it."

  • Straw Memo: "We have also to answer the big question what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than on anything."

  • Downing Street Memo: "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

The message from these memos is is pretty clear: the administration didn't have any postwar plans. They figured they'd invade, mop up, and then leave.

Of course, the memos were written in 2002, so normally we'd simply assume that serious planning was done at a later date. However, the evidence indicates that the Bush administration never took postwar planning seriously, and the Downing Street Memos provide yet another data point to back this up.

Here's the timeline: in March 2002 no one had thought about the aftermath. Four months later, in July, postwar planning was still nonexistent. In August, General Tommy Franks "essentially shrugged his shoulders at what to do once Baghdad fell" and Donald Rumsfeld shrugged along with him.

Six months later, on February 28, 2003, Paul Wolfowitz gave his infamous testimony to Congress in which he suggested that postwar Iraq would be relatively peaceful and wouldn't need very many troops for very long. On March 16, just before the war started, Tim Russert asked Dick Cheney, "Do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?" Cheney said no: "I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators." Four days later the war began.

On May 2, one day after George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, senior military planners in Baghdad said cheerily that they figured they could draw down American troop levels to 30,000 by fall. That same month, 400,000 Iraqi troops were disbanded with no thought given to what should be done with them. By summer the insurgency was in full swing and the administration had nothing but a wildly shifting set of ad hoc plans to deal with it.

The Bush administration never seriously considered what to do with Iraq after the war, and never had a clue that they would be facing a long, difficult insurgency. All along, they just figured they'd install some kind of friendly government and then get out.

This was criminal neglect. The Downing Street Memos are just one more piece of primary evidence that this neglect started at the very beginning.

Kevin Drum 1:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TIRED CONSERVATIVES....Matt Yglesias is upset with the Economist's increasing right wing hackery. In particular, he's annoyed with their insistence that liberals don't have any new ideas. Here's an example that's not actually from the Economist itself, but is written by two Economist editors and matches the tone of what the magazine itself often says:

Indeed, the left has reached the same level of fury that the right reached in the 1960s but with none of the intellectual inventiveness. On everything from Social Security to foreign policy to economic policy, it is reduced merely to opposing conservative ideas.

Actually, I wouldn't mind stuff like this so much if the writers would acknowledge that this lack of innovation is actually far more true of conservatives than liberals today. I mean, what's the conservative agenda these days? Lower taxes, gay baiting, gun rights, school vouchers, business friendly tort reform, kicking ass overseas, opposition to entitlement programs, hatred of collective bargaining, etc. etc. etc. In other words, the exact same stuff they've been pushing at least since Ronald Reagan took office, and in some cases since the day the party was born. There's nothing very new there.

It's a little remarked fact of modern American life that beneath all the sound and fury our political battles are mostly being fought at the margins, mainly because liberals have built up institutions over the past 70 years that are enormously popular and therefore basically invulnerable to serious alteration. Conservatives might be able to change this if they truly had any new ideas to offer, but they don't and their old ideas aren't any more popular than they've ever been. Because of this, conservatives these days have been mostly reduced to little more than nibbling away at liberal programs. Big new ideas or significant changes to liberal institutions are pretty scarce.

Now, I'm guessing that many of my readers don't believe this, so let's roll the tape. What has the Bush administration accomplished in the past four years?

There was No Child Left Behind, a bill that was cosponsored by a legendary liberal in the Senate and has increased federal education spending by $10 billion. Bush's stem cell decision was a weasely compromise, and even at that is likely to be expanded by Congress soon. Sarbanes-Oxley was opposed by the Republican business base but Bush was forced to sign it anyway. Campaign finance reform has likewise been opposed for years by conservatives, but Bush signed that too. The Department of Homeland Security was originally proposed by a Democrat and later co-opted under pressure by Bush though he did manage to get a bit of union busting thrown in. The prescription drug bill was an expansion of a traditionally liberal entitlement program.

How about the conservative side of things? The PATRIOT Act is a bad bill, but let's face it: compared to previous American responses to acts of war, it's a marshmallow. The recent bankruptcy and tort reform bills were bad, but in the great scheme of things qualify as little more than nibbling. Social Security privatization is dead in the water. The war in Iraq, after a mere two years, is already going sour. That pretty much leaves tax cuts and judges as the only unqualified conservative triumphs of the Bush administration, and those have been part of Republican orthodoxy for a quarter of a century.

That's a lot of nibbling and not much in the way of innovative new thinking. It would be nice if the Economist and the rest of the media could take a few minutes away from their lazy liberal stereotyping to acknowledge this.

Kevin Drum 11:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FISCAL CONSERVATISM OF YESTERYEAR....I'm reading Robert Dallek's biography of JFK right now. Here is Dallek on Kennedy's economic concerns during his first year in office:

In the fall of 1961, Kennedy continued to worry that tax cuts would increase deficits and mark him out as a liberal Keynesian at odds with balanced budgets and fiscal conservatives.

Ah, memories....

Kevin Drum 10:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOUNDS ABOUT RIGHT TO ME...."Willful ignorance, rank intellectual dishonesty, and expert demagoguery," says TNR's Adam Kushner. You will be unsurprised to learn that he's talking about the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Kevin Drum 10:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HANDICAPPING THE COURT....If William Rehnquist steps down as Chief Justice, is George Bush likely to (a) save himself some grief and pick an easily confirmable conservative candidate or (b) pick the nastiest, most divisive, most polarizing candidate possible because he's hellbent on showing Democrats who's boss?

Anyone who's been sentient for the past four years has to figure the answer is (b), but in case you want more evidence head over to the Carpetbagger and read about the "murder board." Sure looks like (b) to me.

Kevin Drum 7:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE GREEN REPUBLIC....There's always something worth excerpting in Riverbend's occasional posts from Baghdad, and her latest is no exception. Today she talks about water, electricity, sandstorms, indiscriminate roundups of opposition Sunni and Shia clerics, and the Green Zone:

What people find particularly frustrating is the fact that while Baghdad seems to be falling apart in so many ways with roads broken and pitted, buildings blasted and burnt out and residential areas often swimming in sewage, the Green Zone is flourishing.

....A friend who recently got involved working with an Iraqi subcontractor who takes projects inside of the Green Zone explained that it was more than that. The Green Zone, he told us, is a city in itself. He came back awed, and more than a little bit upset. He talked of designs and plans being made for everything from the future US Embassy and the housing complex that will surround it, to restaurants, shops, fitness centers, gasoline stations, constant electricity and water a virtual country inside of a country with its own rules, regulations and government. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Republic of the Green Zone, also known as the Green Republic.

The Americans wont be out in less than ten years. Is how the argument often begins with the friend who has entered the Green Republic. How can you say that? Is usually my answer and I begin to throw around numbers 2007, 2008 maximum... Could they possibly want to be here longer? Can they afford to be here longer? At this, T. shakes his head if you could see the bases they are planning to build if you could see what already has been built youd know that they are going to be here for quite a while.

That's the view from a moderate, English-speaking Baghdad blogger, anyway. I can only imagine the view from those of somewhat less moderate temperament.

Kevin Drum 5:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MALPRACTICE UPDATE....The Wall Street Journal has a terrific article today about how one group of doctors has successfully decreased their malpractice premiums over the past couple of decades. Their secret? Less malpractice:

Rather than pushing for laws that would protect them against patient lawsuits...anesthesiologists focused on improving patient safety. Their theory: Less harm to patients would mean fewer lawsuits.

....All this has helped save lives....Malpractice payments involving the nation's 30,000 anesthesiologists are down, too, and anesthesiologists typically pay some of the smallest malpractice premiums around. That's a huge change from when they were considered among the riskiest doctors to insure.

....Twenty years ago, little was known about people injured or killed during anesthesia. No U.S. database existed, so anesthesiologists set out to create one. They decided to collect information from insurers on closed malpractice claims, those in which insurers had made a payment or otherwise disposed of the complaint.

Most insurers hesitated to cooperate at first, saying they were worried about patient privacy. One company finally agreed: St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Co. in Minnesota said it was concerned about heavy losses it had suffered from anesthesia-related injuries and was eager for anesthesiologists to review claims. Soon, other insurers followed suit.

Anesthesiologists left their practices for days at a time to pore over closed insurance claims. The information they collected was fed into a computer at the University of Washington to create an overall picture of how anesthesia accidents tend to occur. It "was a humbling experience," recalls Russell T. Wall, an anesthesiology professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. To date, more than 6,400 claims have been analyzed.

There's more to the story, and this isn't the sole answer to fixing America's malpractice problems. Still, if doctors and insurance companies spent half as much time trying to reduce medical errors as they did trying to rig the legal system in their favor, they might save lives and reduce malpractice premiums. I don't really expect insurance companies to care much about this, but doctors ought to.

Kevin Drum 2:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOMETOWN PROPS....Hey, Angela Haynes of Irvine just beat Serena Williams in a terrific 14-12 first set tiebreak at Wimbledon. Go Irvine!

(Yeah, I think she's only "from Irvine" because she's a student at UC Irvine, but we'll take whatever we can get.)

Kevin Drum 2:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AND WMD....Responding to my post last night about Iraq and al-Qaeda, James Joyner asks a question: If Britain believed that Saddam Hussein's regime had no significant ties to al-Qaeda, why did Tony Blair support war against Iraq? Blair (and Bush) certainly believed that Saddam Hussein was a brutal and dangerous thug, but it's worth pointing out that the Downing Street Memos also make it clear that they believed something else: that Saddam was developing WMD capability. Here's a summary:

  • Options Paper: "Sanctions have effectively frozen Iraq's nuclear programme....Biological weapons (BW) and Chemical Weapons (CW) programmes have been hindered.

    ....However: Iraq continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, although our intelligence is poor....Iraq continues with its BW and CW programmes and, if it has not already done so could produce significant quantities of BW agents within days and CW agent within weeks of a decision to do so. We believe it could deliver CBW by a variety of means, including in ballistic missile warheads. There are also some indications of a continuing nuclear programme.

    ....For the P5 and the majority of the Council to take the view that Iraq was in breach of 687[,] they would need to be convinced that Iraq was in breach of its obligations regarding WMD, and ballistic missiles. Such proof would need to be incontrovertible and of large-scale activity. Current intelligence is insufficiently robust to meet this criterion."

  • Ricketts Memo: "...even the best survey of Iraq's WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or CW/BW fronts: the programmes are extremely worrying but have not, as far as we know, been stepped up."

  • Downing Street Memo: "The Foreign Secretary said....It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

On the one hand you have this: "Continues to develop weapons of mass destruction." "Could produce significant quantities of BW agents within days and CW agent within weeks." "Programmes are extremely worrying."

On the other hand, you also have this: "Sanctions have effectively frozen Iraq's nuclear programme." "Intelligence is poor." "Even the best survey...will not show much advance in recent years." "WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

In other words, during 2002 Bush and Blair did believe that Iraq had active WMD programs although no apparent belief in actual stockpiles of WMD. However, even if their belief in Iraqi WMD was genuine, the memos prove beyond much doubt that they deliberately exaggerated the strength of their evidence and deliberately concealed known uncertainties. If these memos had been leaked before the war, it's pretty clear they would have been a big net negative for the case against Saddam.

And remember, these memos are all from 2002. By the time the war started, after several months of highly intrusive scrutiny from UN inspectors, it's doubtful that either Bush or Blair still believed even this much. It's too bad we don't have any later memos that would reveal their thoughts on the matter in March 2003.

UPDATE: Hmmm, it turns out everyone else is talking about this too. Read 'em all!

UPDATE 2: Laura and E.J. too. If the Downing Street Memos do nothing more than get people to genuinely accept the stuff that supposedly "everyone knows" anyway, they will have served a salutary purpose.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON DURBIN....Andrew Sullivan is exactly correct in his explanation of why right wing frothing about Dick Durbin's comments is wrongheaded:

If Durbin had said, as Amnesty unfortunately did, that Gitmo was another Gulag, I'd be dismayed and critical, as I was with Amnesty....But Durbin said something subtler. Now I know subtlety is not something that plays well on talk radio. But in this case, it matters. Durbin focused on one very credible account of inhumane treatment and abuse of detainees (see below) and asked an important question:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime Pol Pot or others that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.

So go ahead: answer his implied question. If you had been told that prisoners had been found in this state in one of Saddam's or Stalin's jails, would you have believed it? Of course, you would.

That's right. You would. The "outrage" over this incident is obviously manufactured and deserves to be treated with scorn.

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

FUNDRAISING....Yesterday, responding to Kevins post asking for your financial support, one of the commenters, JS, wrote:

Think of it this way:
Rupert Murdoch subsidizes the Weekly Standard.
Reverend Moon subsidizes the Washington Times.
YOU could be subsidizing the Washington Monthly.

That pretty much sums it up. Conservatives have been very smart to fund their own media. Its given them forums to try out new ideas, vehicles to inject those ideas into the public debate, and whips to crack whenever they think the mainstream media is getting out of line.

If you think there ought to be an alternative to the rightwing media, one that is more honest, fair, and fact-based, but that is not imprisoned, as the mainstream media so often is, by the fear of being labeled biased for the simple act of calling it like it is; and if you think Kevin and the rest of us at The Washington Monthly are doing this, then please help us by clicking the button on the right and contributing whatever you can.

About half the budget for the magazine and this site comes from subscriptions and advertising. The rest comes from donations. So your contributions really are important.

Paul Glastris 7:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Happy summer solstice!

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AND AL-QAEDA....I thought I might do another little summary this evening of high-level British opinion as revealed by the Downing Street Memos. Tonight's subject is Iraq's ties to al-Qaeda:

  • Options Paper: "In the judgement of the JIC there is no recent evidence of Iraq complicity with international terrorism."

  • Ricketts Memo: "US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Aaida [sic] is so far frankly unconvincing."

  • Straw Memo: "If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the US would now be considering military action against Iraq. In addition, there has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with UBL and Al Qaida."

  • Downing Street Memo: "C reported on his recent talks in Washington....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."

"No recent evidence." "Frankly unconvincing." "No credible evidence." "Facts were being fixed."

The Brits pretty clearly knew that the Iraq-al-Qaeda connection was a crock. As with the existence of global warming, though, they apparently didn't have much luck in getting their American counterparts to admit it.

Kevin Drum 1:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CREDIT FREEZE....When a business or a fake business run by ID thieves requests a credit report, normal practice is for the report to be immediately turned over with no questions asked. A "credit freeze" is an option that turns this around: if you put a freeze on your account, lenders are prohibited from reviewing your credit report unless you give your permission. This prevents most ID fraud since lenders generally refuse to issue credit without first seeing a credit report.

Four states have laws that allow you to freeze your credit report, but USA Today reports that credit reporting agencies oppose extending this to other states or to the federal level:

Lenders, credit bureaus and businesses argue that the inconvenience created by a credit freeze outweighs potential benefits. Credit-freeze laws allow consumers to "unfreeze" their reports, but that typically takes about three days.

In the meantime, a consumer could miss out on a low mortgage rate or one-time credit card offer, says Nessa Feddis, senior federal counsel for the American Bankers Association. "It sounds good, but people don't realize how often they request their credit reports be pulled for a good deal," she says.

I have an idea to fix this: don't take three days to unfreeze the report. In fact, I have a better idea: by default, personal credit reports should never be shown to anyone until the credit reporting agency contacts the consumer independently and receives permission to do so. This could be by phone, internet, or mail.

This would slow down credit authorizations slightly and would increase the cost of doing business for credit agencies, since they would be responsible for contacting consumers whenever someone requests a credit report. Tough. Consumers should have absolute control over their own credit information. This is especially true given the skyrocketing incidence of ID fraud and the obvious inability of credit agencies to keep personal information secure. It's time to shut down the ID thieves, and this is the way to do it. Someone needs to start making a stink about this in Congress.

Kevin Drum 8:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A PLEA FOR YOUR HARD-EARNED CASH....Do you see that house ad over on the right, the one that says "We Need Your Help"? Go ahead and click it. I promise it won't cause any spyware to infest your computer.

In fact, it's nothing more than a straightforward, all-American appeal for your dough to help keep both this blog and the Washington Monthly going at least until George Soros remembers us in his will or something. After you've clicked the link, one further click will allow you to donate money, subscribe to the magazine, or buy an ad. Or do all three!

In case you're wondering, this really is the only way we're able to stick around subscriptions don't come close to covering the cost of running the magazine. So if you have a few spare dollars rattling around in your pocket, please help us out. We really, really appreciate it.

And if you don't, we want you to keep reading anyway. We're liberals, after all....

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TRUTH ABOUT ED....Remember The Truth About Hillary, Ed Klein's sleazy hatchet job that claims Chelsea Clinton was conceived after Bill raped Hillary in Bermuda? And remember how we were supposed to believe that the right wing had gotten so responsible in its old age that it wasn't paying any attention to Klein?

Well....not quite. Unless, of course, an EXCLUSIVE interview in the biggest selling conservative magazine on the planet counts as "not paying any attention." The whole thing is worth reading as a trip down memory lane, but my favorite part comes at the beginning. After Kathryn Jean Lopez pretends to chide Klein for his "terrible story" wink wink, nudge nudge Klein explains that he's just being taken out of context:

Here's why it's not a rape claim: I dont imply the source was in the room with the Clintons, for all my source knows they could have had a massive fight and then reconciled. My source doesnt speculate, I dont speculate. This whole story, "the rape story" as its being called by others, speaks more to how the Clintons communicate, their bizarre relationship.

His source doesn't speculate! He doesn't speculate! Hell, maybe the Clintons are just messy housekeepers! Why, Klein is just flummoxed that anyone could have twisted his words into an allegation of rape.

Here's my second favorite part. Just before referring to himself grandiosely as "a journalist with impeccable credentials," he says this:

I intended my book to take a good hard look at Hillarys true character, and if the book is being compared to the Swift Boat Vets book on that account, then I am proud of the comparison.

He's proud of being compared to the Swift Boat loons! It's a badge of honor!

And my third favorite part? It's a ten-way tie. You can make your own nominations in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CONSERVATISM'S BLACK HOLE....Matt Yglesias at Tapped:

A little while ago Dick Durbin noted on the Senate floor that torturing prisoners was the sort of thing Nazis or Communists would do, and that the United States, trying to be one of the world's good guys, should hold itself to a higher standard of conduct....Hugh Hewitt and Bill Kristol, both of whom I firmly believe know perfectly well that Durbin said nothing objectionable, fall over each other in The Weekly Standard to see who can win Hack of the Year prize by demanding ever-harsher retribution against Durbin.

It's...telling as an instance of the ethical black hole into which the contemporary right has fallen....Every time, the point of the defense is not to defend the conduct in question, but simply to note that someone, somewhere, at some time has done worse things. We're better than Saddam Hussein! Our prisons aren't as bad as Auschwitz!

People like Kristol and Hewitt seem to feel that anything other than polite, mild-mannered criticism of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib is wholly out of bounds a position that's hardly surprising, I suppose, since they belong to a conservative movement that in recent years has tried to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy and defend the World War II internment camps. One might rightly shudder in anticipation of which moral depravity is next up on the right wing's "wasn't nearly as bad as you think" list.

If conservatives spent half as much energy condemning torture as they did shedding crocodile tears over Dick Durbin, maybe the head of their party would get the message that this stuff is wrong. Until then, they should spare us the moral outrage.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOLTON UPDATE....Good news! Now that John Bolton has left his previous job where he was in charge of arms control, we're suddenly making great progress on arms control! Laura Rozen has the details.

Kevin Drum 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY IN IRAQ....Here's an interesting little tidbit from the Downing Street Memos. It's from the "Options Paper," and it's the only place in the entire set of briefing papers that sets out goals for the government of postwar Iraq. First there's this:

The US administration has lost faith in containment and is now considering regime change. The end states could either be a Sunni strongman or a representative government.

These two options are described in more detail later on:

  • a Sunni military strongman....The US and other militaries could withdraw quickly. However, there would then be a strong risk of the Iraqi system reverting to type. Military coup could succeed coup until an autocratic, Sunni dictator emerged who protected Sunni interest. With time he could acquire WMD; or

  • a representative broadly democratic government. This would be Sunni-led but, within a federal structure, the Kurds would be guaranteed autonomy and the Shia fair access to government....However, to survive it would require the US and others to commit to nation building for many years. This would entail a substantial international security force and help with reconstruction.

Now, this does not make it sound as if anyone involved had a very strong commitment to democracy in Iraq. The two options, both of which appear to be equally acceptable, are a Sunni strongman or a government led by Sunnis and guaranteeing leadership to a minority faction is only slightly more "democratic" than simply installing a strongman in the first place.

Another section of the paper lists seven "objectives" of UK policy, and notable by its absence is any desire for a democratic government in postwar Iraq notable because today we are supposed to believe that democracy was an ironclad part of the plan from the very start. If it was, this paper does a good job of hiding it.

The Options Paper was written on March 8, 2002, and there is no discussion in any of the later papers about which of these two options Bush and Blair decided on. Paul Wolfowitz was said to be in favor of "something like a functioning democracy," but aside from that the only other mention of any kind comes a couple of weeks later in a memo from Jack Straw that goes out of its way to say that "Iraq has had NO history of democracy so no-one has this habit or experience."

It would be interesting to know which option they chose, wouldn't it? Especially since the available evidence indicates that the strongman option ended up being their first choice. Surely there must be subsequent memos in which this was hashed out?

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LEAVING IRAQ....Matt Yglesias and Phil Carter both make arguments today in favor of withdrawing from Iraq not out of a sense of defeatism, but because it's the only way to accomplish our goals. Matt's argument is that it's the very presence of U.S. troops that's keeping the insurgency alive. What's more, he says, our presence prevents Iraqis from taking responsibility for the success of their own political process:

One can plausibly make the case that our open-ended military commitment encourages brinksmanship and maximalism on the part of Iraqis "inside" the political process rather than the spirit of "hang together or hang separately" that the situation requires.

Phil makes the case that since the Army is stretched to the breaking point, it has little choice but to begin troop drawdowns fairly soon anyway. Given that, they'll make lemonade out of their lemons:

I believe that the U.S. military will preserve itself rather than let the war tear it apart.

What does this mean in practical terms? Simple. Over the next year or two, you are going to see an increasing amount of effort being applied to "Iraqification". We are going to devote more and more troops to getting their security forces "trained and ready", such that we can draw down our forces and hand over the country. The building of Iraqi forces is the key task for the U.S. in establishing a new and stable government in Iraq.

Phil doesn't seem very sure that "Iraqification" is a winning strategy rather than just a convenient excuse for something we have to do anyway, and who can blame him? After all, it bears more than a faint resemblance to "Vietnamization," Richard Nixon's identical and ill-fated idea for reducing our presence in Vietnam. What's more, the rationale behind Vietnamization was very similar to Matt's argument about Iraq's political process. If history isn't repeating itself here, it sure is rhyming nicely.

But cynical or not, maybe this is the right formula. We should make the argument that (a) it's only the fear that we plan to stay in Iraq permanently that keeps the insurgency alive, (b) we can eliminate that fear by publicly announcing a timetable for withdrawal, and (c) with the wind taken out of the insurgents' sails, Iraqi forces will be adequate to keep control.

Of course, this all depends on the notion that Bush & Co. want to withdraw from Iraq in the first place. This is, needless to say, far from clear.

Kevin Drum 8:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FATHER'S DAY....My father passed away many years ago, but here's what we all looked like back in 1959 on the campus of Long Beach State College (as it was then known), where he taught for many years.

I'm six months old in this picture and my sister is a few months past her third birthday. My brother is still a twinkle in my parents' eyes. Weren't we cute?

Kevin Drum 2:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOWNING STREET DELUSIONS....The wingnuts are getting desperate. Captain's Quarters, in a nostalgic attempt to recreate the glories of Rathergate, suggests that the Downing Street Memos aren't real. Why? Because Michael Smith, the reporter who got hold of them, had them retyped to protect his source and then returned the originals. Jonah Goldberg feverishly calls CQ's revelations a "must read."

Now, unlike the Killian memos that were at the center of Rathergate, there are quite a few principals in this case who either wrote or received these memos and therefore have absolute knowledge of whether or not they're genuine. The first memo, for example, was written by Matthew Rycroft and distributed at the time to David Manning, Geoff Hoon, Jack Straw, Peter Goldsmith, Richard Wilson, John Scarlett, Francis Richards, Richard Dearlove, Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan, and Alastair Campbell. So far, not a single one of these people has claimed they're fake.

In fact, just the opposite. Here's Tony Blair himself on May 1, the day the first memo was published:

In a Sunday morning television interview, Mr. Blair did not deny that the meeting took place in July 2002, but he recalled that "subsequent to that meeting, we went the United Nations route," seeking a resolution in November 2002, calling on the Iraqi government to disarm.

Here's Knight Ridder on May 5:

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.

Here's the Washington Post on June 12:

Excerpts were made available to The Washington Post, and the material was confirmed as authentic by British sources who sought anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter.

Give it up, guys. They're real.

Kevin Drum 1:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GRADE INFLATION....This advice comes too late for the school year just ended, but Mark Thoma has been studying grade inflation and explains what he found:

I broke down grade inflation by instructor rank and found it is much higher among assistant professors, adjuncts, TAs, instructors, etc. than for associate or full professors. These are instructors who are usually hired year-to-year or need to demonstrate teaching effectiveness for the job market, so they have an incentive to inflate evaluations as much as possible, and high grades are one means of manipulating student course evaluations.

And check it out: he has cool charts and everything! Thoma's results show that full professors are tougher graders than assistant professors, who in turn are tougher graders than adjuncts. Public schools are tougher graders than private schools. Plan your classes accordingly.

(Coincidentally, this explains the conversation I had with my friend Professor Marc last night. He told me the GPA in his summer class was 2.4 so far, and I was surprised. But Prof M is a full professor at a state university, so he's right in the groove for his own niche in the educational ecosystem.)

This is all via Alex Tabarrok, who also passes along the results of a different study that suggests grade inflation isn't such a bad thing. Vive la Rvolution!

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

QUIZ ANSWERS....In my previous post about Dick Durbin's description of torture at Guantanamo, I asked readers to fill in the blank in his speech:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what
Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by __________.

Please note that this is for the non-humor impaired. With that firmly in mind, the envelope, please:

  1. The French in Algeria. (Cheese eating surrender monkeys! Worse than Nazis!)

  2. The rest of Cuba. (Symmetry!)

  3. The Texas state penal system. (152 executions under Dubya!)

  4. Andersonville. (The South shall rise again!)

Or, there's always Galactus....

Kevin Drum 11:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GITMO TALK....I'm curious about something. First, read this FBI description of conditions found at Guantanamo, as quoted on the Senate floor by Dick Durbin:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold....On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night.

....If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what
Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by __________.

Conservative apologists clearly believe it's out of bounds to fill in this blank with Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Pol Pot. Fine. I'm not really as offended by Nazi comparisons as some people are, but OK. No Nazis.

So my question is this: what is the right historical analogy? There are lots of evil regimes past and present to choose from, but I'm not sure which ones are acceptable references when describing the use of torture at Guantanamo. Can I get some conservative feedback on this?

UPDATE: I see that Brad Plumer is on sort of a similar wavelength.

Kevin Drum 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE ECONOMICS.....Via libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, libertarian economist Arnold Kling takes a whack at liberal economist Paul Krugman and his support for universal healthcare:

There is no actual evidence that the elderly [under Medicare] receive better care, or more cost-effective care, or more egalitarian care than people under 65. Krugman thinks that health care policy is a morality play, in which those who favor national health insurance wear white hats, and that their opponents are "special interests." That is not a viewpoint for which economic analysis is necessary or sufficient.

I agree with Kling's last sentence. I doubt that a universal healthcare system in the United States would either reduce overall healthcare costs or increase efficiency more than modestly. It might, since our current system is a wildly fragmented kluge, but my guess is that the United States spends a lot on healthcare primarily because we're a rich country that chooses to spend a lot of money on healthcare.

In that narrow sense, then, Kling is right that this is not an argument based on economic analysis. However, there are many non-economic benefits to universal healthcare:

  • It's, um, universal. Everyone is covered, not just the lucky duckies with good jobs (or spouses with good jobs).

  • It levels the playing field for corporations. Corporations that offer decent healthcare to their employees are currently at a disadvantage compared to both domestic competitors who don't cover their workers as well as to overseas competitors whose workers rely on national healthcare systems.

  • Universal healthcare allows you to choose a doctor and stay with her. You aren't forced to switch doctors whenever you get a new job or your company's HR department decides to change health plans. As Phil Longman points out, guaranteed long-term relationships can have a significant impact on long-term health outcomes.

  • It covers people who are high-risk or who have pre-existing conditions. Employer health plans often don't for certain periods of time.

  • It provides continuing healthcare coverage for workers who temporarily lose their jobs.

  • If the experience of European systems is any guide, both overall health outcomes and satisfaction with health coverage is considerably higher under universal systems than under the U.S. system. Despite spending far less per person than in the U.S., quality of care is high and, contrary to Heritage Foundation legend, waiting times in the well-run systems are generally short.

  • In the U.S., Medicare recipients are far more satisfied with their health coverage than those with normal employer-based health plans. Stunningly, even the poor, who largely rely on Medicaid and emergency rooms, are more satisfied than those with employer plans.

I think it's a mistake to try to analyze healthcare primarily in theoretical economic terms. After all, we have loads of empirical data at our disposal: the rest of the developed world has relied on national healthcare systems of one kind or another for decades and there's little evidence that this has either hurt or helped their overall economic performance compared to the U.S. There are lots of factors that affect the economies of individual countries, but the provision of healthcare doesn't seem to be one of them and even Kling doesn't suggest otherwise. Nor does he try to pretend that Medicare provides worse healthcare than employer-based plans.

Universal healthcare might or might not reduce healthcare costs, but even in the worst case it would be an economic wash compared to what we have now. However, when you add to that the enormous non-economic benefits that universal healthcare provides, the decision to adopt it should be a no brainer.

The reason we don't is....powerfully entrenched special interests. So Krugman is right: it's primarily a morality play. Choose your side wisely.

Kevin Drum 3:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STUDYING THE OIL MARKET....Oil prices continued their recent climb this week, reaching a new high of $58 per barrel on Friday. What's causing this increase? Here are some of the explanations on offer:

  1. Dow Jones Newswire: Mohammad-Ali Khatibi, director of the Tehran-based International Center for Energy Studies' OPEC research office....said current production of 85 million b/d would be surpassed by projected demand rises to 87 million b/d in the fourth quarter, leaving producing countries having to pump an extra two million b/d, which they won't be able to do.

    Houston Chronicle: "I would argue it's quite connected with fundamentals," [said. Tom Petrie of energy advisory firm Petrie Parkman & Co.] "This market has developed a healthy skepticism based on the reality that Saudi Arabia and other key OPEC suppliers are doing a lot more talk about new supply than actually providing it."

  2. BBC: The Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi warned that without additional oil refineries there would still be a shortage of the oil products in demand. "There is no shortage of oil. It's there. What is driving the price is the inability to make the oil into products," he said.

  3. Los Angeles Times: Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst at investment firm Oppenheimer & Co. in New York...noted that OPEC already was producing 30 million barrels a day regardless of its quota. "There is no spare capacity, period, and the market is realizing that," he said.

  4. New York Times: The possibility of a terrorist attack in Nigeria was enough to tap the oil market's fear that demand-driven pressure on prices might evolve into a full-blown supply-driven crisis.

  5. Reuters: U.S. data this week showed brisk consumption of transport fuels, renewing concerns about refiners' ability to meet peak summer gasoline demand and to build heating oil and diesel fuel inventories for later in the year.

  6. Wall Street Journal: "This is really being driven by hedge-fund money," [said Anthony Lerner, manager of energy derivatives for Arc Oil LLC.] "We're seeing new hedge-fund money coming in every day."

  7. Forbes: Inventories of crude [fell] by a larger-than-expected 1.8 million barrels last week to 329 million barrels, according to the U.S. Energy Department's weekly supply snapshot.

  8. Associated Press: Fears of potential refinery glitches during the hurricane season in the United States have also added to market insecurity in recent days.

So: the problem is that OPEC can't increase production; refineries can't increase production; there's no spare capacity; instability in Nigeria is causing panic; summer driving demand will be high; hedge funds are roiling the market; inventories are down; and fear of hurricane season is making everyone nervous.

In other words, no one has a clue what's really going on, so they're just tossing out every possible explanation they can think of. This is actually less unusual than you might think, since one of the peculiar little secrets of the oil industry is that no one actually knows what drives prices up or down. However, it seems to have reached pathological proportion in the past few weeks, and that's not a positive sign.

For what it's worth, I've ranked these explanations based on my guess of their importance. Basic supply problems (#1 and #2) are most important; razor thin spare capacity and related fears of sudden disruptions (#3 and #4) are next; and concerns about summer driving, winter hurricanes, inventory levels, and hedge funds are mostly just random noise.

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE COPY EDITING FROM THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION....Another day, another scientific report rewritten in Newspeak. This one is about grazing rules on public land:

The original draft of the environmental analysis warned that the new rules would have a "significant adverse impact" on wildlife, but that phrase was removed. The BLM now concludes that the grazing regulations are "beneficial to animals."

...."This is a whitewash, they took all of our science and reversed it 180 degrees," said Erick Campbell, a former BLM state biologist in Nevada and a 30-year BLM employee who retired this year. Campbell was the author of sections of the report pertaining to impacts on wildlife and threatened and endangered species.

I really wish "scientists" would quit their incessant whining about the commendable amount of time and effort the Bush administration takes to make their reports more accessible to average folks. The fact is, "beneficial" is just a whole lot easier to understand than bureaucratic mumbo jumbo like "significant adverse impact." If the science community would take more care with their language in the first place, none of this would happen.

Kevin Drum 1:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 17, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JEB BUSH'S CHRISTIAN CHARITY....I wasn't going to blog about this, but I can't myself. This is truly beyond belief:

Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that a prosecutor has agreed to investigate why Terri Schiavo collapsed 15 years ago, citing an alleged time gap between when her husband found her and when he called 911.

....In a letter faxed to Pinellas-Pasco County State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the governor said Michael Schiavo testified in a 1992 medical malpractice trial that he found his wife collapsed at 5 a.m. on Feb. 25, 1990, and he said in a 2003 television interview that he found her about 4:30 a.m. He called 911 at 5:40 a.m.

"Between 40 and 70 minutes elapsed before the call was made, and I am aware of no explanation for the delay," Bush wrote. "In light of this new information, I urge you to take a fresh look at this case without any preconceptions as to the outcome."

The Bush children have always been distinguished by a fiery unwillingness to back down combined with an almost bestial pursuit of revenge against anyone who has ever crossed them. They don't want to beat their opponents, they want to destroy them.

This, though, simply beggars the imagination. What kind of human being would keep a vendetta like this alive at this point?

Kevin Drum 5:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY....Via Peevish, the first dispatches filed by an American reporter from Nagasaki after World War II have finally been published. They were originally censored by Douglas MacArthur's office and believed lost, but copies were found recently in a bunch of old boxes. Editor & Publisher has the fascinating story.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the stories as printed in the Mainichi Daily News.

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE GITMO?....Via Laura Rozen, it appears that Halliburton has won a $30 million contract to build a new prison at Guantanamo. No wonder Cheney is booking time on Larry King to tell us what a great place Gitmo is.

Seriously, this is really happening. I swear I'm not joking. Click the link if you don't believe me.

Halliburton. Honest to God. The Daily Show jokes just write themselves these days, don't they?

Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE TOM DELAY PROBLEMS....The Carpetbagger reports on yet another ethical pickle for Tom DeLay. It's not a big one, but it does involve ExxonMobil, leader of the "Warming? What warming?" corporate crowd. That ought to be worth a little something.

Kevin Drum 12:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS IN THE WHITE HOUSE....Editor & Publisher reprints a priceless exchange in the White House briefing room between Terry Moran and Scott McClellan. Since McClellan's answers don't have any semantic content worth spending pixels on, I figured I would edit the transcript just to reproduce the questions:

Q Scott, is the insurgency in Iraq in its 'last throes'?

Q But the insurgency is in its last throes?

Q But they're killing more Americans, they're killing more Iraqis. That's the last throes?

Q Right. What is the evidence that the insurgency is in its last throes?

Q What's the evidence on the ground that it's being extinguished?

Q Well, I'm just wondering what the metric is for measuring the defeat of the insurgency.

Q Yes. Is there any idea how long a 'last throe' lasts for?

Here's an idea: maybe the White House should institute "wiki-briefings" that allow us all to go in and edit the transcripts. That would be fun, wouldn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LA TIMES WIKITORIAL....I'll be damned. The LA Times "wikitorial" project is now online, and it's an honest to goodness wiki. I figured it would end up being some kind of bastardized verson where everyone could rewrite an editorial and then post their own version. But no. There's one version, and anyone who wants to can go in and edit it. Given the kind of traffic that the LA Times draws, I assume that wikitorials will change about every ten seconds or so once everyone figures out they're there.

Their first wikitorial is based on today's editorial about the Iraq war. The wiki is here and the original editorial is here.

Kevin Drum 12:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOUBLE DOWN IN IRAQ?....OR FOLD?....What should we do about Iraq? I have some depressing thoughts.

"Double the American boots on the ground," advises Tom Friedman, apparently oblivious to the fact that there are no more boots to be had. Does he think they will appear if we just clap our hands? Max Boot, who is slightly less feverish, concedes our lack of manpower but then suggests that the answer is to recruit foreigners into an American version of the French Foreign Legion.

These arguments are absurd. There are no more troops. Period. What's more, there's no way we can get more in either the near or medium term. We could start up a draft tomorrow and it would still be a year before we had any additional combat brigades available. If you discount the draft and consider only realistic scenarios, it would take us at least two years to bring a significant number of new troops online. Suggesting otherwise is just wishful thinking.

The problem with this, as Niall Ferguson and others persuasively argue, is that our current troop strength isn't nearly enough to defeat an apparently well armed and highly motivated insurgency. Without more troops we're doomed to failure.

If this is true and it seems to be the logic of the situation is inescapable: since we're in an unwinnable situation with the troops we have, and raising more troops is impossible, we're asking soldiers to die for nothing. The obvious answer is to pull out of Iraq, and there's a growing push among Democrats, 41 of whom have just created the Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus, to do just that.

But here's the depressing thought: what happens if Democrats press for withdrawal and get their way? What then?

Liberals are fond of Vietnam analogies, so I've got one handy here: it will play out just like the aftermath of that war did. Something like this:

  1. Democrats demand an end to the war. Increasingly, polls appear to back them up.

  2. Under pressure, a Republican president finally does just that. After some suitably face saving nation building and treaty signing, troops are withdrawn.

  3. As virtually all observers fear, Iraq then falls into bloody civil war. Hundreds of thousands die. Neighboring countries are pulled in. Eventually, a new dictator, perhaps a Shiite ayatollah, takes control and forms a passionately anti-American government.

  4. Once again, America will appear to have been humiliated by a ragtag army. And despite the fact that polls seemed to demonstrate support for withdrawal, the aftermath will sit poorly with the American public. What's more, they'll know who to blame: Democrats.

Liberals today tend to view Vietnam as a vindication: We were right! It was a horrible war! But history suggests the American public never really agreed with that, regardless of what they told pollsters after the fact. After all, George McGovern ran on a platform of withdrawal in 1972 and suffered one of the worst defeats in American history. In all, following the period in the mid-60s during which Vietnam went sour, Republicans won five out of six elections. Only Watergate allowed Jimmy Carter to eke out a victory in the middle of that run.

Much of this was due to domestic backlash against the excesses of 60s counterculturalism, of course, but I think the war played a part too. What's more, to the extent that it did, the electoral backlash happened not because Americans blamed Democrats for getting into the war, but because they blamed Democrats for not winning the war. Initially, Democrats were blamed when Vietnam turned into a quagmire, and later they were blamed for the communist dictatorship that followed our withdrawal, a ghost that Ronald Reagan rode to power in 1980.

This is what I'm afraid could happen again. Democrats will push for withdrawal, eventually they'll get their way, and the country will blame them for the resulting chaos and defeat. Dems will argue that it would have happened anyway, but the public won't buy it. The Republican party, which should get the blame, will get off scot free.

These are gloomy thoughts, and not especially admirable ones, but they're the thoughts I have. I wish I had different ones.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

REVEREND JACK... As a kid growing up in St. Louis, I somehow acquired and put up on my bedroom wall a campaign poster of our GOP senator, John Danforth. I did this not out of any deep fealty to the man or his party indeed, on his picture I penned in a mustache, beard, and pirate-like hoop earring. It was more a sign, I think, of my then-vague interest in politics, and the fact that I genuinely liked the guy. He seemed serious, smart, moderate, and kind.

After college, when I first came to Washington, I tried to get a job in his office. I was told by his equally kind chief of staff that my political proclivities seemed to put me more comfortably on the other side of the aisle, which I had to admit was true. Still, over the years, I have remained a fan of Danforth's. And his op-ed in the New York Times today shows why. An ordained Episcopal minister, Danforth offers perhaps the most effective counter to the Christian right that I have ever read:

Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God's truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they have developed a political agenda that they believe advances God's kingdom, one that includes efforts to "put God back" into the public square and to pass a constitutional amendment intended to protect marriage from the perceived threat of homosexuality.

Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings. Like conservative Christians, we attend church, read the Bible and say our prayers.

But for us, the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we find that the Love Commandment takes precedence when it conflicts with laws. We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday living, and we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians can be codified by legislators.

When, on television, we see a person in a persistent vegetative state, one who will never recover, we believe that allowing the natural and merciful end to her ordeal is more loving than imposing government power to keep her hooked up to a feeding tube.

When we see an opportunity to save our neighbors' lives through stem cell research, we believe that it is our duty to pursue that research, and to oppose legislation that would impede us from doing so.

We think that efforts to haul references of God into the public square, into schools and courthouses, are far more apt to divide Americans than to advance faith.

Following a Lord who reached out in compassion to all human beings, we oppose amending the Constitution in a way that would humiliate homosexuals....

In the decade since I left the Senate, American politics has been characterized by two phenomena: the increased activism of the Christian right, especially in the Republican Party, and the collapse of bipartisan collegiality. I do not think it is a stretch to suggest a relationship between the two.

Reading this, you can see why Danforth didn't last long as the Bush administration's U.N. ambassador.

Paul Glastris 9:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FROOMKIN'S CRYSTAL BALL....I happened to be rereading some old posts about the Downing Street Memo and came across this, written on May 17 by the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin, back when the memo was failing to cause much excitement:

It's possible it's less a dud than a bomb with a long, slow fuse.

Very presicent indeed. I think Froomkin gets the Prognosticator of the Year award. So far, anyway.

Kevin Drum 8:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEBATING HEALTHCARE....I was pretty taken aback last week by the white hot blasts of vitriol unleashed at Ezekiel Emanuel over his Universal Healthcare Voucher proposal. The reason I was taken aback is that universal healthcare is a fundamentally liberal idea, and the only real point of contention in the comment threads was over which kind of universal healthcare is better: a single-payer plan or a plan that incorporates competition via insurance companies? Why then was UHV treated as if it was an idea on loan from the Heritage Foundation?

I'm not sure, but since I never did a wrapup post on the subject I'm glad to see this from Jon Cohn over at TPMCafe:

This is a fine debate to be having within the liberal policy community right now; putting out new ideas is a great way to generate discussion and, ultimately, politically momentum. But I think it makes sense for everybody to keep an open mind on both the policy and political questions.

....Talking up this or that idea is one thing; trashing the others as hopeless is quite another. Fans of single-payer should not preemptively dismiss competition models simply because they involve the private insurance industry; competition advocates should not dismiss single-payer just because it seems to them a harder reach politically.

That's spot on. The UHV proposal wasn't an example of negotiating with ourselves, it was an example of a policy debate between liberals on a liberal website sponsored by a liberal magazine. Conservatives do this all the time despite frequent liberal fantasies about right wing monoculturalism and it makes them stronger. It makes us stronger too, but only if we refrain from ripping each other to shreds in the process.

And while we're on the subject, a friend of mine sent me a link recently to an article that's must reading for anyone interested in the healthcare debate. It's called "Abandoned Surgery," and it's a 1995 piece by John Judis about how the business community at first supported Clinton's healthcare plan but later turned against it, even though they largely agreed that it would benefit them.

It's too long to excerpt, but it's a timely piece to read since one of the memes floating around the debate right now is the idea that big corporations are getting sick and tired of hassling with healthcare and are therefore becoming more and more likely to support a universal healthcare plan that gets it off their backs. But guess what? It turns out that was true in 1994 too. There's more to the story than just that, though, and if we're going to argue about this stuff it's best to truly understand the political and ideological forces working against us.

I will add one comment about Judis's article, however, namely that it supports two diametrically opposed conclusions:

  1. Clinton tried hard to get the business community and the insurance industry to support his plan, but they turned on him anyway. If that's the reality, we should just accept the fact that they're going to be against us and not worry about trying to buy them off.

  2. The fact that big business and the insurance industry successfully scuttled Clinton's plan shows how powerful they are. The reality is that this is what will happen every single time unless we figure out a way to get them on our side.

I don't think it's at all clear which lesson is the right one. But it's a healthy debate to have.

Kevin Drum 6:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FIXED....Via Atrios, the Washington Post has an online conversation today with Michael Smith, the London Times reporter who originally published the leaked Downing Street Memos. Here, he responds to a questioner who wants to know if there's any ambiguity about the meaing of "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy":

This is a real joke. I do not know anyone in the UK who took it to mean anything other than fixed as in fixed a race, fixed an election, fixed the intelligence. If you fix something, you make it the way you want it. The intelligence was fixed and as for the reports that said this was one British official. Pleeeaaassee! This was the head of MI6. How much authority do you want the man to have? He has just been to Washington, he has just talked to George Tenet. He said the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. That translates in clearer terms as the intelligence was being cooked to match what the administration wanted it to say to justify invading Iraq. Fixed means the same here as it does there.

Administration apologists have done yeoman work suggesting that (a) "fixed" doesn't mean what you think it means and (b) the head of MI6 was just shooting the breeze with the PM based on conversations with DC taxi drivers anyway. These are both obviously ridiculous. "Fixed" means exactly what you think it means, and the observations in the memo were based on conversations with extremely high level American officials.

And don't forget: the memos also make it plain that Bush was deliberately timing the war to coincide with midterm elections. And that postwar planning was abysmal. And that democracy promotion was really not something the Bushies cared much about. It's true that a lot of people had guessed much of this even at the time, but you'd think the editorial boards of the nation's newspapers would be just a wee bit more interested than they are by finding documentary proof for it.

After all, suppose someone dug up a memo from Winston Churchill that said "Spoke to FDR. Asks patience. Says Japs targeting PH. Will join us after that." Do you think that might spark some lively debate in newsrooms across the country? Or would editors scratch their beards and suggest that "PH" might mean something different to those inscrutable Brits than it does to us?

Kevin Drum 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A VERY SPECIAL ELECTION....The latest TV commercial in California's now permanent election campaign is all about evil Democrats and their tax increases, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has picked up the beat in his personal appearances. LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik isn't amused:

Schwarzenegger was already out and about this week telling elderly homeowners that his Democratic opponents are plotting to change Proposition 13 in a way that could deprive them of their homes. In the old days, we would call that statement a baldfaced lie; today, I suppose, we're supposed to accept it as merely a charming fabrication.

Hiltzik is pretty exercised about our November election, and I don't blame him. As he notes, we're having an election next June anyway, and it's unlikely that any of Schwarzenegger's initiatives will have even a slight effect in the intervening seven months. Why not wait and save the $50 million or so the special election will cost?

Personal ego, of course, which seems to be Arnold's speciality. I guess he's a true Californian after all.

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EXIT STRATEGY....While a small band of Democrats and Republicans are starting to look for an exit strategy in Iraq, a rather larger band of Republicans are looking for an exit strategy on Social Security:

Senate GOP leaders, in discussions with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and political officials, have made it clear they are stuck in a deep rut and suggested it is time for an exit strategy, according to a senior Senate Republican official and Finance Committee aides.

....President Bush has responded by dispensing his cautious calls for bipartisanship in favor of far tougher rhetoric that blames the Democrats for the stalemate.

Of course he has. After all, George Bush is a uniter, not a divider.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS....Last June, a black woman named Tamika Huston was reported missing by her family. USA Today picks up the story from there:

Rebkah Howard, Huston's aunt and a public relations professional in Miami, tried to get the national media interested in the case. "I spent three weeks calling the cable networks, calling newspapers even yours," Howard said this week.

Not much happened.

...."It's stunning sometimes how hard it is to get the national media interested when it's a minority," [said Philip Lerman, co-executive producer of America's Most Wanted and a former editor at USA Today.]

Good for USA Today for writing about this. Maybe eventually this kind of publicity will embarrass the cable folks into finding something else to fill their airtime.

UPDATE: Tamika Huston's uncle emails to pass along the following two sites where you can get more information about her:

Kevin Drum 2:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SEEING THE FUTURE....This is apropos of nothing, but I had a funny observation the other day and thought I'd share it.

As I mentioned last month, I started reading Samuel Eliot Morison's Oxford History of the American People a couple of weeks ago and finished it over the weekend. (Verdict: it's mostly just regulation history, but not bad. Not that it matters since it's out of print anyway.) By chance, though, it turned out that the book was written in 1963 and ends with JFK's assassination, which is a pretty extraordinary coincidence since that was precisely the year in which the world was just about to change in dramatic ways.

But Morison, who's generally a keen observer and frequently provides personal observations, had no clue that anything was about to happen. He writes a bit about the "Negro Revolution" that was then taking place, but mostly to mention that efforts to advance the cause of civil rights were being stymied as usual by Southern committee chairs in the Senate. There's not so much of a peep about either the sexual revolution or the feminist revolution that was about to take place, next to nothing about Vietnam, nothing about the growth of youth culture, nothing about drugs, nothing about the environment, and nothing about Medicare or the expansion of the New Deal. As far as he could tell writing in 1963, there was absolutely nothing unusual brewing on the horizon.

I don't have any special reason for bringing this up except that it was a nicely concrete example of how hard it is to see a liberal revolution coming, even if you're sitting right on the cusp of it. Who knows? Maybe the next one will start tomorrow.

Kevin Drum 6:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM FOLLOWUP....Yesterday's post about investigative journalism got me thinking: has there been a reduction in the amount of investigative journalism in the mainstream media over the past decade or two?

How would you even measure that? I don't really care much about either budget figures or the number of reporters who call themselves investigative journalists although both would be suggestive and interesting data points only with the actual amount of investigative output in mainstream media outlets. But how would you define what's "investigative" and what's not? And how would you locate and catalog all the examples?

Maybe Annenberg or someone ought to take a look at this. I'd be curious to know what's really going on, but I wouldn't even know where to start.

Kevin Drum 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WIKIPEDIA....This is fascinating. I just looked myself up on Wikipedia and it turns out there's an entry for me. Take that, Encyclopedia Britannica! However, I also learned that my entry is "being considered for deletion in accordance with Wikipedia's deletion policy." Hmmph.

Turns out it's just the work of some guy who hates blogs, though, and so far the vote is 8-2 to keep me around, including five votes suggestions to expand the entry. Hooray!

On a side note, I'm pleased to see that my entry credits me with "pioneering 'friday cat blogging'." Since this is pretty clearly my greatest contribution to the blogosphere, I'm happy to see it immortalized. On the other hand, my description as "level headed" has apparently been removed as unacceptably opinionated. Win some, lose some.

And a note to Eliot: I only dissed the LA Times wiki editorial project, not wikis in general. After all, what other encyclopedia is ever likely to have an entry for me?

Kevin Drum 5:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PRESS SOFT ON CLINTON?....IN WHICH UNIVERSE?....Howard Kurtz on the failings of the national press corps:

The press performance in covering this tightly disciplined administration has been far from perfect, especially on Iraq. But it's worth remembering that during the Clinton years, it was conservatives who saw the media as being embarrassingly soft on the White House.

Well, yes, conservatives did say that. But Howard, you're a columnist: shouldn't you tell us whether you think they were right? After all, a veritable mountain of evidence suggests just the opposite, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 4:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LABOR SPLIT LOOMING?....Nathan Newman reports that the AFL-CIO is close to a crackup. The basic point of contention is between a group of unions led by Andy Stern's SEIU, who want to focus like a laser on recruiting new members, and a competing group of old-line industrial and public employee unions, who mostly want to protect their existing membership. Nathan thinks a split might end up being for the best:

Ironically, a split in the AFL-CIO could lead to more unity. The SEIU-led coalition goal is to create organizing unity among its five unions plus probably the Carpenters. And the rest of the remaining AFL unions will no doubt feel pressure to unify more of their organizing drives or see the new coalition moving in on their territory. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s when the formation of the CIO led to the AFL back then launching a massive organizing drive, something the CIO unions had been demanding but something those unions refused to do until they had the pressure of an alternative federation breathing down their neck.

I'm inclined to agree. Sure, other things being equal, unity would be better than a split, but other things aren't equal. The two main factions within the AFL-CIO young and growing vs. old and protective have fundamentally different objectives, and given labor's sorry state these days it's hard to see it turning around via a long series of murky compromises.

The best bet is for the SEIU faction to secede and try something genuinely new. Sure, it might not work, but the alternative definitely won't work: union membership in the private sector has careened downward for over three decades, reaching an anemic 7.9% in 2004, with no end to the bloodletting in sight. Even GM hasn't sucked that badly.

It's time to take a chance and try something dramatically new. If the rest of the AFL-CIO can't see that, I wish the dissenters the best of luck.

Kevin Drum 2:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RISE AND FALL AND RISE....ExxonMobil timeline:

  • Seven days ago: "President's George Bush's decision not to sign the United States up to the Kyoto global warming treaty was partly a result of pressure from ExxonMobil, the world's most powerful oil company, and other industries, according to US State Department papers seen by the Guardian."

  • Also seven days ago: "A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents....The official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors...had already approved."

  • Five days ago: "Philip A. Cooney, the chief of staff to President Bushs Council on Environmental Quality, resigned yesterday, White House officials said."

  • Today: "Philip A. Cooney, the former White House staff member who repeatedly revised government scientific reports on global warming, will go to work for Exxon Mobil this fall, the oil company said yesterday."

Philip Cooney: hardworking White House staffer or bought-and-paid-for shill for the oil industry? Or is there a difference?

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I JUST PLAY ONE IN THE SENATE....Yes, Terri Schiavo really was in a persistent vegetative state. No, she never would have recovered. Just like the doctors who actually examined her said.

On the other hand, it turns out that the TV doctors like Bill Frist should stick to the right wing pandering they do so well. ThinkProgress has the dueling diagnoses:

Frist: "She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli."

Autopsy report: "The vision centers of her brain were dead."

Nice call, Bill.

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GOLD RUSH....The LA Times reports on the investing prowess of Senator Ted Stevens (R-Gold Country):

In 1997, Stevens invested $50,000 with developer Jonathan B. Rubini. Last year, at Stevens' request, Rubini and his partner bought back the senator's interests in their deals for $872,000, according to Senate financial disclosure forms made public Tuesday.

Now, I know what you're thinking: the feds spent $70 million investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton over an investment they lost money on. So the Justice Department will surely be all over this.

After all, they have plenty to work with. The Anchorage Daily News summarized a 2003 LA Times investigation thusly:

While Rubini was multiplying Stevens' wealth, Stevens was helping Rubini secure a $450 million Defense Department contract to build and own housing on Elmendorf Air Force Base.

But the Times story provided new details about the Stevens family finances:

  • Stevens' wife, Catherine Bittner Stevens, made at least $47,000 by buying bargain shares of Alaska Communications Systems stock and then selling them a year later. Stevens, as a senior member of the Commerce Committee, has influenced communications policy that has benefited ACS.

  • Sen. Stevens did not report in his 1999 financial disclosure that Chamer Co. an investment firm owned by Catherine Stevens, her siblings and their mother obtained 42,248 shares of ACS, some of which Catherine Stevens later purchased. "Ethics rules require disclosure by a family-owned business, in detail and in the same year a transaction occurs," the Times reported.

  • Other investors in JL Properties, the Anchorage real estate venture Stevens invested in, were required to contribute more capital if needed and to personally guarantee the partnership's debts. Stevens, though, did not take on that risk. The Times reported: "Stevens was not asked to guarantee notes or promise more money because he was brought in as a passive investor, Rubini said. The senator said he asked for that status because it shielded him for the kind of open-ended financial obligation that had caused his 'bad experience' in the crab boat venture" that he lost money on in the 1980s.

You can read more about Stevens here and here. The original LA Times story is here. I just know that a special prosecutor will be jumping all over this any day now.

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LOOKING ON THE BRIGHT SIDE....Don Rumsfeld in an interview with BBC's Newsnight:

Asked if the security situation had improved [in Iraq], he admitted: "Statistically, no."

"But clearly it has been getting better as we've gone along," he added. "A lot of bad things that could have happened have not happened."

Well, Martians haven't invaded and we've avoided nuclear war so far. So I guess he's right.

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MUDCAT UPDATE....Marshall Wittman is right: Matt Labash's Weekly Standard profile of Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, the legendarily quotable consultant to Southern Democrats who are seeking the "Bubba" vote, is worth reading. I don't know if Mudcat has the answers, but even if he's wrong, at least he's entertaining to listen to.

The following passage is worth noting. It's actually part of a conversation with Saunders' partner, Steve Jarding:

[Mark Gersh's] data suggested formerly Democratic rural voters were voting Republican out of habit, and largely on cultural issues, but they weren't necessarily satisfied customers....25 years after the Reagan Democrat phenomenon, "they said they hadn't gotten a damn thing for that vote. 'Our infrastructure is falling apart, we don't have any jobs here, we can't make a living.' According to Gersh's research, they were pissed off. Gersh said, 'They're voting Republican, but they're not Republican. You can get them back.'

...."If you say to them, 'You're voting against your own economic interest,' is that true? Damn right, it's true. But it sounds belittling. It sounds like you're saying, 'You're an idiot.' No, Democrats, you're the idiots. They're voting on their values. They're voting on something out there, because the other side gave them something to vote on. You've given them nothing, and while you're doing that, suicide rates are up. Unemployment rates are up. Wages are down it's a terrible mess in rural America."

This gets to an issue I've long had with the whole "voting against their economic interests" argument: I don't think it's true. Seriously now, try to answer this question in a concrete way: if you were an average joe in a rural part of the South or the Midwest, how would it help you to vote for a Democrat? What would you get out of it?

A higher minimum wage? Maybe, but even in the rural South most people already make more than the minimum wage. Medicare and Social Security? They already exist. Money for roads? Republicans do that too. More labor friendly laws? That doesn't resonate much in the South, and in any case they probably don't believe that Dems can deliver on that anyway.

So exactly what economic interests are they voting against? Forget the Krugmanesque (or Drumesque) arguments about regressive taxes or rising income inequality. They may be true, but they're way too abstract. If you want to convince these guys that their economic interests lie with Democrats, we need to offer them something real: local clinics, free healthcare, tax rebates, something. Right now, I don't think these voters believe that Democrats are actually promising anything that would make a genuine difference in their lives.

In other words, it's not that values have drowned out the economic arguments, it's that no one's even making the economic arguments in language that means anything to these guys. Until we start, we'll never really know for sure whether or not values trump economics, will we?

Kevin Drum 1:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 14, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM....Over at TomPaine.com, Russ Baker mourns the loss of investigative reporting:

With W. Mark Felts confession, we now know that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were not making it up....They actually did hold covert meetings in underground parking structures and engage in all manner of classic derring-do. The goings-on came to define the very essence of investigative reporting. A generation of young journalists were thus inspired, and investigative reporting grew and thrived.

But that Golden Age is gone, and we need to figure out why, and what can be done to revive it.

I'm a little skeptical about this. If the post-Woodstein era really was a golden age of investigative journalism, I wish someone could remind me of what got investigated. Last I heard, Iran/Contra went nowhere and George "I was out of the loop" Bush won the 1988 election handily.

Beyond this, Baker posits three causes for the decline of investigative reporting, and I'm not sure I buy them:

  • Media concentration and an obsession with the bottom line have dried up funds for investigative reporting.

    Hmmm. I see Baker's point here, but I wonder: Did very many newspapers really have big budgets for long-term investigative reporting back in the 70s and 80s? Weren't Woodward and Bernstein just ordinary beat reporters who did plenty of day-to-day stories in between Watergate scoops?

  • Conflict of interest prevents serious investigative reporting. How can NBC investigate military contractors when it's owned by General Electric?

    NBC has been owned by RCA since the day it started. Conflict of interest is nothing new there.

    Besides, most serious investigative reporting is done by the big metro/national dailies, and nothing much has changed there either. The New York Times is still independent. The Wall Street Journal is owned by Dow Jones, same as always. The LA Times was independent until a few years ago, and even now is owned by the Tribune Company, a media conglomerate with no ties to non-media companies except the Chicago Cubs. Ditto for the Washington Post, which was a media conglomerate before Woodward and Bernstein had ever heard Richard Nixon's name.

  • Intimidation from the right has made the media timid.

    Maybe, but this is a little harder to judge. If reporters are really less willing to go after tough stories these days, my guess is that right-wing intimidation isn't the reason why.

In fact, far from inspiring a generation of investigative titans, I sometimes think that Watergate had a serious negative effect on investigative journalism that no one ever talks about. I call it the "smoking gun syndrome," and it's the fact that all that matters in modern scandals is whether you can find an absolutely 100% ironclad smoking gun the kind that the Pentagon Papers and Watergate made famous. Come up with a semen stain on a blue dress and you have a feeding frenzy even if the underlying issue is pretty trivial. Fail to find an incriminating document after Ollie North's shredding party and Reagan and Bush get off scot free from Iran/Contra even though no sentient observer honestly believes they didn't know what was going on.

Government officials have learned this lesson, of course, and they no longer do things like taping Oval Office conversations. In other words, if there's truly been a decline in investigative journalism since Watergate, I suspect it's due less to a decrease in journalistic prowess and more to an increase in governmental coverup ability. Being asked why the shredders were operating late at night may be embarrassing, but it's better than having a file cabinet full of intact documents that makes the answer obvious.

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WEDGE POLITICS....Melanie Mattson passes on a Boston Globe story suggesting that Alabama judge Roy "Ten Commandments" Moore might pose a wee problem for the Republican party in 2006:

Moore, a Republican who enjoys widespread support in his home state, is poised to run against a vulnerable Republican governor. If he wins, some party strategists speculate, he could defy a federal court order again by erecting a religious monument outside the Alabama state Capitol building. With the 2008 presidential race looming, President Bush would then face a no-win decision: either call out the National Guard to enforce a court order against a religious display on state grounds or allow a fellow born-again Christian to defy the courts.

Wouldn't that be sweet? Run, Roy, run!

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DEEP THROAT JR.?....So who's the British Deep Throat who's been leaking the Downing Street Memos? The Washington Post's Jefferson Morley takes a guess:

A story in The Independent last month pointed to a more plausible candidate for the British Deep Throat. Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the United States, is now writing his memoirs for publication later this year, according to the liberal London daily.

"The diplomat was present when Mr. Blair met George Bush in the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in March 2002 and played a key role in the run- up to the war," the story noted.

Meyer would have had access to top secret memoranda. Documents previously leaked to Smith show that Meyer was a critic of Bush administration policy on Iraq. And friends of the former diplomat were quoted as saying his book was "likely to make uncomfortable reading for Mr. Blair." And, probably for President Bush too.

Another mystery to unravel!

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HOW POPULAR IS YOUR SENATOR?....Via James Joyner, SurveyUSA has a list of all U.S. senators ranked by current popularity in their home states. The full list is here. I thought it would be fun to show just the senators who are up for reelection next year, so here it is:

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OLD LYNCHING, NEW LYNCHING....The Senate voted yesterday to apologize for never having passed a federal anti-lynching law. Deborah Crawford, whose great-grandfather was lynched in South Carolina in 1916 after arguing with a white farmer over the price of cottonseed, said she had mixed feelings about the whole thing:

"I feel that there should be something else, something more than an apology, but I don't know what," Crawford said.

By a curious coincidence, though, "something more" happened on the very same day:

The Supreme Court, overturning the murder convictions of a black man in California and another in Texas by nearly all-white juries, warned judges and prosecutors Monday that they must put an end to racial discrimination in the selection of jurors.

....The pair of rulings puts new teeth in earlier decisions that ordered trial judges to watch over the process of selecting a jury. Judges were to make sure that neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers excluded potential jurors because of race.

It's about damn time. There's value in symbolic actions like the Senate apology, but there's a lot more value in recognizing the reality of how racism continues to work today and then doing something about it. Of course lawyers routinely consider race when they pick juries, and most judges know it when they see it. Giving them the authority to put a stop to this helps prevent the modern day equivalent of lynching which, for my money, is the best way there is to apologize for the actions of the past.

Of course, my real preference would be to eliminate jury selection by lawyers altogether, and just let judges do it. But I guess I'll have to be satisfied with this for the time being.

UPDATE: Apparently, even apologizing for old style lynching is too much for some senators. Guess which party they mostly belong to? AMERICAblog has a list.

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BLINK....I think I had one of those Malcolm Gladwell Blink moments yesterday. I've mentioned before that I have mixed feeling about parental notification laws, but last night I learned that a notification law has qualified for the November special election here in California. My immediate and unbidden reaction was "Yecch. I'm sure not voting for that!"

So, um, not so mixed feelings after all. Funny how you discover stuff like that sometimes.

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DIALING FOR DOLLARS....I've read plenty of stories like this in the past, but even so it's almost painful to read about the immense amount of time and energy that members of congress are forced to spend on fundraising:

Many members loathe working the blue call sheets of potential donors. So the parties have developed an enforcement system that, in the case of the House Republicans, includes specific goals for each lawmaker, a network of 35 team captains to track the collection process just the way whips check on votes, and strategic leaks of the latest tallies to embarrass recalcitrant members to get on the phone.

....[Rep. Jack] Kingston, who is also vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, held weekly meetings with his team captains and called members who were not meeting their goals to give them a boost. Kingston, the son of an educational psychologist, said he is using the same formula to motivate members to raise money that he used when he was in his twenties and selling commercial insurance strictly on commission: Make it fun, while warning of what could go wrong.

Yeah, tons of fun. Just like selling commercial insurance on commission. You'd think these guys would be begging for a system of public campaign finance.

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SETTING THE AGENDA....I realize it might not be helpful to point this out, but I was amused to see that the Washington Post's trivia question for today is "What percentage of Republicans are white Christians?"

Does it help or hurt Democrats for the media to be focusing on this? I guess it depends on what people think of when they hear the phrase "white Christians." If they think "intolerant fundamentalists," then it probably helps. If they think "hey, I'm a white Christian," then it probably hurts. I'm not really sure, myself.

But Howard Dean sure does have a powerful influence on the political chattering classes, doesn't he? He'll be a powerful force for good if he's careful.

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OIL WATCH....The New York Times reports on the inability of OPEC to supply more oil to a thirsty global market:

"OPEC members are already pumping at full capacity and can do nothing about prices," Bijan Zanganeh, the oil minister of Iran, OPEC's second-largest producer behind Saudi Arabia, said in Tehran before traveling to Vienna.

....OPEC's enhanced bargaining power is yet another illustration of the growing global demand for oil. Demand is expected to reach 86.4 million barrels a day in the fourth quarter, the International Energy Agency said this month, translating into 1.78 million barrels a day more than last year.

....OPEC could add about 700,000 to 800,000 barrels of daily production capacity among its members by the end of the year, according to the International Energy Agency.

So....demand is expected to increase by 1.78 million barrels per day, but OPEC can increase its production by only 700,000 to 800,000 barrels per day. That means the rest of the world needs to increase its production by a million barrels a day.

That's probably not a problem. For this year anyway. But it's going to be a problem the year after that unless OPEC starts drilling some new wells. I guess that's when we'll find out if Matt Simmons is right or not.

In the meantime, OPEC is concerned they might start losing business:

Some OPEC representatives remain worried that high oil prices could encourage consumers in rich countries to start switching to other fuels as energy efficiency becomes a bigger concern. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that such a large-scale transition might be under way.

That's too bad. It would be nice if we could make their fears come true.

Kevin Drum 12:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SUPPLY SIDE BUFFOONERY....I don't normally tee off on Wall Street Journal op-eds although occasionally I make exceptions but today is a special day: it's Stephen Moore's maiden outing as a member of the WSJ editorial board. A friend emailed to tell me that "knowing how much you enjoy shooting fish in a barrel," I should take a look. He was right! Moore's sermon today is about the wonders of supply side economics:

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan chopped the highest personal income tax rate from the confiscatory 70% rate that he inherited when he entered office to 28% when he left office and the resulting economic burst caused federal tax receipts to almost precisely double: from $517 billion to $1,032 billion.

Tax revenue doubled! That does sound like a triumph for the tax cut jihadists, doesn't it? But this is Stephen Moore, after all, so perhaps we should take a more careful look:

  1. First, we should adjust for inflation, shouldn't we? In 1980 dollars, $1,032 billion is actually $670 billion.

  2. And of course, population increased over that time too, which naturally increases tax payments. Adjusting for that, tax revenue was $2,283 per person in 1980 and $2,694 per person in 1990.

  3. That's not double. It's an increase of 18%. And it's worth noting that a lot of that is due to consistent tax increases throughout the 1980s (details here). Without that, Reagan wouldn't have gotten even the anemic growth in tax revenue that he did.

But wait. Is "anemic growth" fair? Why yes. After all, we can play this game with any decade. Annual tax receipts are here. Adjusting for inflation and population growth, the supposedly horrible 70s produced an increase in tax revenue per person of 25%. The Clinton 90s produced growth of 40%. In fact, Reagan produced the slowest growth in tax revenue of any decade since World War II. That's a real supply side triumph.

Welcome to the Journal, Steve. You guys deserve each other.

Kevin Drum 11:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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JACKO UPDATE....Michael Jackson has been found not guilty. Our long national nightmare is finally over.

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CLINTON HATRED vs. BUSH HATRED....On March 5, 1997, long before Monica Lewinsky became a household name, I wrote the following on my original blog:

While we're on the subject of Clinton, can anyone explain the sheer hatred he engenders among so many conservatives? There's certainly no reason for them to like him, but they mostly treat him as if he were the antichrist, despite a pretty middle-of-the-road record.

The release of John Harris' The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House has reignited this debate, and I've been thinking about it. But first, a preliminary question: was Bill Clinton hated unusually strongly?

Well, yes, he was. Still, it's not obvious that he's a runaway winner in this category. In terms of standard issue loathing, FDR was pilloried by the business class like no other president since Andrew Jackson. LBJ was forced out of the White House by the militant hatred of college students toward the war he had gotten us into. Richard Nixon was despised by his enemies and disliked even by his friends, and eventually driven from office just as LBJ was. A substantial fraction of today's left thinks George Bush is only slightly preferable to Adolf Hitler.

In other words, Clinton has competitors for the title of Most Hated President. At the same time, though, the firestorm around Clinton really was substantively different from the others. After all, FDR gave businessmen plenty of reason to hate him. LBJ really did get us into a quagmire in Vietnam. Richard Nixon really was a crook. But Clinton was....Clinton: a DLC Democrat, a born compromiser, a centrist policy wonk. That's what makes Clinton hatred so unique: the fact that we even have to ask why so many people hated him in such an extraordinary fashion.

To get at the answer to that, I think you have to drill down beyond ordinary public opinion, beyond even passionate public opinion, and look to the real source of Clinton hatred: the wingnuts.

Wingnuts have always been with us, of course, yammering away in crudely mimeographed newsletters about the Trilateral Commission and the UN's black helicopters. But in past administrations they were (mostly) marginalized and ignored both by the press and the country at large.

Not so with Clinton's wingnuts. When you walk down memory lane of the 90s, here's what you get: Clinton fathered a passel of black children out of wedlock. He ran drugs out of the governor's mansion in Little Rock. He had Vince Foster rubbed out by the mob. He paid off his guards to find women for him. He sold plots in Arlington cemetery in return for political favors. He ran a shadowy cabal, first from Little Rock and then from the White House, that killed dozens of people who knew about his past.

I could go on. Yesterday, for example, came the latest from wingnut land: an allegation that Chelsea Clinton was conceived only after Bill Clinton raped Hillary on a vacation in Bermuda. It's a real blast from the past, the kind of allegation that no other president has had to endure. Only Clinton.

This, then, is the answer: wingnuts have always been around, but they've never been given a voice. That changed with Bill Clinton.

Why? The answer is obvious: instead of crudely mimeographed newsletters, the cranks had access to talk radio and the internet, both of which expanded their audience to the point that the mainstream press felt it had to pay attention. For the first time ever, the wingnuts went mainstream.

And that's the difference between Clinton hatred and every other presidential hatred. All presidents have to put up with rhetorical excess, and all presidents have to put up with both scandal and the opponents who make hay out of them. But only Clinton was forced to deal with wingnuts as if they were serious critics. Rush and Drudge made them semi-respectable, the Republican party welcomed them, and then the press paid attention to them. In the end, it all blew up in the absurd spectacle of a wingnut-inspired impeachment that did nothing but make its target more popular than ever, and since then the wingnuts have (mostly) been swept back into the murky fever swamps of delusion where they belong.

But for one brief, glorious moment, they controlled the national agenda. And that's what makes Clinton hatred so very, very special.

UPDATE: A couple of notes based on remarks in the comment thread.

First, there are two different kinds of wingnut: there's "wingnut" in the sense of an extremist politician like Tom DeLay or Rick Santorum, and then there's "wingnut" in the sense of someone who thinks the CIA assassinated JFK and Bill Clinton ordered a mob hit on Vince Foster. The first type is still with us, of course, and stronger than ever. It's the second type, which is what I was talking about, that's mostly been driven underground lately.

Second, will they stay underground? I don't think we know yet. Sure, we had to put up with the Swift Boat loons last year, but campaign nastiness is fairly normal. The question is whether the press and the Republican party will once again enable conservative wingnuttia the next time a Democrat becomes president. Stay tuned for the answer to that.

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JUDGING THE ECONOMY....Max Sawicky enters the fever swamp of mainstream economics and produces the following anecdote:

An econ professor I know likes to tell a story of his days as a Fed employee. At some kind of meeting new numbers were reported, to the effect that real wages had declined in a recent period. He recalls that a cheer went up among those present.

Business reporters do the same thing. Whether this is because they're equally clueless or because they're just following the crowd, I couldn't say.

There's a broad basket of economic indicators that we'd all like to see going in the right direction. We all want high GDP growth, low unemployment, a rising stock market, low inflation, etc. etc. But if you put a gun to my head and told me I could judge the health of an economy by only one statistic, my choice would be median income. If it's going up in real terms, the odds are good that the economy is in fine fettle. If it's stagnant or dropping, trouble is brewing. After all, what's the point of all the other stuff if 80% of the country isn't getting any benefit from it?

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THE IRAQI INSURGENCY....Is the Iraqi insurgency in its "last throes"? According to Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter, even the military brass doesn't think so anymore:

"I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that ... this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations," Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week, in a comment that echoes what other senior officers say. "It's going to be settled in the political process."

Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed similar sentiments, calling the military's efforts "the Pillsbury Doughboy idea" pressing the insurgency in one area only causes it to rise elsewhere.

"Like in Baghdad," Casey said during an interview with two newspaper reporters, including one from Knight Ridder, last week. "We push in Baghdad they're down to about less than a car bomb a day in Baghdad over the last week but in north-center (Iraq) ... they've gone up," he said. "The political process will be the decisive element."

....Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who works with the task force overseeing the training of Iraqi security troops, said the insurgency doesn't seem to be running out of new recruits, a dynamic fueled by tribal members seeking revenge for relatives killed in fighting.

"We can't kill them all," Wellman said. "When I kill one I create three."

Elsewhere in the article an anonymous diplomat says the U.S. has a newfound willingness to negotiate with insurgent groups, a risky but potentially fruitful concession.

This may be a strategy born of desperation, but it still strikes me as good news. I don't know if these guys have genuinely come to this conclusion recently, or if they've always felt this way and are only now starting to speak up, but it doesn't really matter. The first step in dealing with a problem is to publicly acknowledge the reality of the problem, and it looks like this might finally be happening.

Of course, it's also worth pointing out that the "political process" itself is still not going very well, and the training of Iraqi troops looks to be a long, hard slog indeed. A more realistic approach to Iraq is welcome, but none of this means the Iraqi insurgency is either solved or even solvable.

Still, at least now we have a chance.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE FUTURE OF EDITORIALS?....Yesterday morning, I read this on the LA Times editorial page:

Watch next week for the introduction of "wikitorials" an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials.

Today, in an article dishing some dirt on Michael Kinsley's reign as the LAT's editorial and opinion editor including an unfortunate incident with a Xerox machine the New York Times explains this a bit further:

"We'll have some editorials where you can go online and edit an editorial to your satisfaction," [editorial page editor Andrs] Martinez said. "We are going to do that with selected editorials initially. We don't know how this is going to turn out. It's all about finding new ways to allow readers to interact with us in the age of the Web."

Mr. Kinsley said that he was just trying something new with the wikitorials.

"It may be a complete mess but it's going to be interesting to try," he said. "Wikitorials may be one of those things that within six months will be standard. It's the ultimate in reader participation."

This is completely incomprehensible to me. That doesn't mean it won't work, I suppose, but I have no idea what the point is supposed to be. It seems like interactivity just for the sake of interactivity.

Stay tuned.

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June 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DEEP THOUGHTS....Weekend wisdom from the blogosphere, ripped violently out of its native habitat but then hyperlinked back to its source so you have the option of attempting to make sense out of it if you're so inclined:

From renowned evolutionary psychologist Bob Harris, who has reason to speculate about this: "I think natural selection must have greatly rewarded the ability to reassure oneself in a crisis with complete bullshit....Indeed, inventing reassuring bullshit may be humankind's keenest survival skill. And now that we are our own greatest predator, it will probably kill us all."

From once and future philosophy student Lindsay Beyerstein, reminiscing about her childhood: "It might be great, it might be terrible!" my Dad would say, "Anyway, we've got five gallons."

From distinguished media critic Jim Henley, explaining how to read the newspaper: "The rest of the article is stuff you already knew, just more official-like."

From celebrated business law professor Stephen Bainbridge, who probably ought to know the answer to this: "What is it about the computer industry that turns people into (or maybe just attracts) lying, cheating, thieving little twerps shits?"

From eminent legal scholar Ann Althouse, who's been watching too much Larry King: "Ah, dammit, I'm back to thinking about Nixon again."

Kevin Drum 11:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

VOUCHER SCHOOLS IN MILWAUKEE....The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a quite fascinating story today about their city's 15-year experiment with voucher schools by far the oldest and biggest voucher program in the country. The bottom line appears to be that some voucher schools are good, some are bad, and their overall performance is fairly middling. Much like the public school system, there are both bright spots and alarming deficiencies.

But there were a couple of items that caught my attention. First, as you can see from the chart on the right, enrollment in Milwaukee's voucher schools spiked in 1998-99. Why? Because that's the year a new law took effect that expanded the voucher program to include religious schools:

The amount of taxpayer money going to pay for religious education in Milwaukee has no parallel in the last century of American life. About 70% of the students in the program attend religious schools.

....If any single factor distinguishes the families and parents at the choice schools from those in [public schools], it is religion. Students in the choice program pray together in class. They read the Bible, the Qur'an or the Torah. They attend Mass. Most schools report that even students from families outside of their faith accept and seek out religion as part of education.

Now, I have nothing against religious schools. In fact, even public funding for religious schools doesn't give me all that much heartburn. But if the effect of vouchers is overwhelmingly to provide extra funding to parochial schools, rather than to promote the creation of new schools that want to experiment outside the bounds of the public school bureaucracy, it's a little hard to see what the point is.

The second item that caught my attention is something that voucher skeptics have been complaining about for a long time: lack of accountability. In a sidebar, the MSJ tells us that a researcher named John Witte was commissioned to study voucher school performance in the early 90s, but when the program was expanded to include religious schools his job was terminated:

When the Legislature expanded the voucher law in 1995, it ended Witte's role, and there has been little fresh research since then, especially any using newer data.

.... Proposals to do fresh research on the choice program have been blocked in the state Capitol, with partisans on each side blaming the other. Choice advocates have argued for a 12-year study tracking performance of individual students over time. Opponents of the idea say the research would take too long and would not require all voucher schools to take part. They generally want voucher students to take the standardized tests that public school students are required to take, with results made public.

This is absurd. If there's a secular religion among education reform advocates, it's accountability and testing. But apparently that religion goes out the window as soon as genuine religion is involved.

I can be talked into experimenting with vouchers and charter schools. But if the real goal is just to expand funding for parochial schools and allow them to operate with no oversight, count me out. High stakes testing has long been presented as a panacea for public schools, and if that's the case, then it ought to be one for voucher schools as well. They should be willing to put their test scores where their mouths are.

NOTE: Today's stories were the opening salvo of a 7-part series. The rest of the series will run during the balance of the week.

Kevin Drum 5:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSINESS AND LABOR....Here is Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Oxford History of the American People, writing about why businessmen hated FDR and the New Deal:

Worst of all, he had done his best to peg wages at trade-union levels. Almost every man of wealth had enough resources to tide him over any conceivable depression, but he wanted the downward spiral to hit rock bottom, smash the labor unions, and re-establish the free labor market of the previous century. Roosevelt's successful effort to prevent that was his unpardonable crime; but in the eyes of the country at large, his greatest achievement.

A lot of things have changed since the Depression, a lesson that many Democrats need to learn. However, the core concern of the business-friendly right hasn't changed a whit. That's a lesson that a lot of Democrats need to learn too.

Kevin Drum 2:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KINSLEY ON THE DOWNING STREET MEMO....About 30 minutes ago, in an update to last night's post about the Downing Street Memos, I suggested that reporters weren't paying a lot of attention to them because they thought it was old news. After all, they had figured out a year ago that Bush's war plans had been set in stone long before the war started, so the memos didn't really provide any new information.

In the intervening 30 minutes, though, I've read Michael Kinsley's latest column on the subject. It's pretty obvious that I was wrong. Not everyone has figured out what's going on.

First, here is the wording of the original DSM:

C [the head of MI6] reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable.

....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.

....The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided.

Got that? The head of MI6, the defense secretary, and the foreign secretary all reported that military action was a foregone conclusion. Here's how Kinsley reports this:

The key passage summarizes "recent talks in Washington" by the head of British foreign intelligence (identified, John le Carre-style, as "C"). C reported that "military action was now seen as inevitable."

....But even on its face, the memo is not proof that Bush had decided on war. It states that war is "now seen as inevitable" by "Washington." That is, people other than Bush had concluded, based on observation, that he was determined to go to war. There is no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that he had actually declared this intention. Even if "Washington" meant administration decision-makers, rather than the usual freelance chatterboxes, C was only saying that these people believed that war was how events would play out.

So: three high level officials from our closest military partner came to Washington for high level talks. All three came to identical conclusions. What's more, the balance of the DSM is a discussion of military plans and legal justifications that assumes military action as a given. The only question mark is the exact date.

Yet Kinsley treats this as if these guys were just some bloggers who were shooting the breeze about the DC rumor mill. Is he serious?

And then, after spending 500 words telling us that the memos prove nothing at all (and that the lefty suggestion that Bush planned to go to war all along is just a "paranoid theory"), he finishes up by agreeing with me: everyone does knows all this stuff already, he says, so why the big deal? "Fixing" intelligence is standard Bush practice, and there was lots of contemporary reporting that suggested war was inevitable. So why is everyone making such a fuss?

Shorter Kinsley: the DSM is just rumormongering....but it's probably true....no smoking gun, though....but I wouldn't be surprised....they were just talking about how things would "play out"....but the Wall Street Journal was pushing for war....but....but....but....


Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE DOWNING STREET MEMOS....The London Times has gotten hold of yet another leaked memo prepared for Tony Blair in July 2002. This one says that Blair had already agreed the previous April to support military action against Iraq, and therefore some way needed to be found to make it legal:

The briefing paper, for participants at a meeting of Blairs inner circle on July 23, 2002, said that since regime change was illegal it was necessary to create the conditions which would make it legal.

....US plans assume, as a minimum, the use of British bases in Cyprus and Diego Garcia, the briefing paper warned. This meant that issues of legality would arise virtually whatever option ministers choose with regard to UK participation.

....The document said the only way the allies could justify military action was to place Saddam Hussein in a position where he ignored or rejected a United Nations ultimatum ordering him to co-operate with the weapons inspectors. But it warned this would be difficult.

The Washington Post has yet another memo prepared at the same time, this one suggesting that the Bush administration had no clue what it was getting into:

Saying that "we need to be sure that the outcome of the military action would match our objective," the memo's authors point out, "A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise." The authors add, "As already made clear, the U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point. Washington could look to us to share a disproportionate share of the burden."

One of the reasons the previous Downing Street Memo hasn't gotten much traction with the press and the reason these new memos will probably get limited attention as well is that I don't think anyone really finds any of this a surprise. After all, previous evidence has already made it clear that George Bush was intent on war against Iraq almost immediately following 9/11. It was the first thing on Donald Rumsfeld's mind on 9/11 itself, and Dick Clarke has testified that hours later Bush himself was more eager to go after Iraq than Afghanistan a plan was subsequently reversed due to pressure from Tony Blair and a cadre of more levelheaded Bush staffers. Even so, by early 2002, with Osama bin Laden still on the loose, intelligence assets and special forces were already being moved out of Afghanistan and into the Iraqi theater.

By April it was clear to the British that war was inevitable, and in July they were discussing a strategy to use the UN as a cassus belli. In September Bush went to the UN as planned, and White House chief of staff Andy Card explained the timing with his famous statement that "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." Two months later, Saddam Hussein allowed UN inspectors into the country, thus ruining the hoped for legal justification, and three months after that the inspectors still had uncovered no serious violations. Nonetheless, war commenced in March 2003.

Was the Iraq war a foregone conclusion by early 2002? Of course it was. These new memos provide further evidence of that, but I'm not sure there's anyone who really doubted it in the first place.

More on this later, I'm sure.

UPDATE: As Atrios point out, my ending sentence was badly worded. Such are the perils of late night posting.

What I meant to say was that most of the press had probably concluded before the DSM memos were released that Bush had committed himself to war in early 2002, not that they knew it at the time. Having already figured that out last year, they probably think the Downing Street Memos are a bit of a yawn.

Kevin Drum 1:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IN PRAISE OF HOWARD DEAN....Ed Kilgore says that he's got no problem with Howard Dean:

Every party chair spends a lot of time speaking to Democratic activists, and inevitably serves up a lot of red meat. Dean's recent "controversial" remarks would have been completely unobjectionable, and probably unnoticed, if they had been uttered by his predecessor.

....The media's tendency to distort and then hype Dean's rhetoric is predictable and unavoidable. In a NewDonkey post congratulating the Doctor on his victory in the DNC chair race, I observed that he would be playing by "Hillary Rules," which means exceptional and unavoidable scrutiny of every single word he says.

But Ed, that's a feature, not a bug! I don't want Dean to go over a cliff with this kind of stuff, but his reputation as a straight shooter allows him to say things that other people are only thinking, and his role as party chairman forces the press to pay attention. This is a good thing.

Initially, of course, it doesn't look that way, but guess what happens after the initial firestorm has died out? With news hook in hand, reporters will get to work. Does James Dobson control the agenda of the Republican party? Are Republicans overwhelmingly white? Do party leaders work against the interests of the working class? This is exactly where we'd like the focus to be: on our issues, not theirs. After all, the answers to these questions are inevitably going to be bad for the Republican party.

This is the same thing that happened with the Newsweek/Koran story. At first the White House thought they could get some mileage out of bashing Newsweek, and in the short term they were right. But within a week or two the initial firestorm had flickered out and the tide had turned: reporters had begun investigating the allegations and were starting to write stories about what was really going on at Guantanamo. Within a few weeks, it had gotten so bad that Bush felt it necessary to publicly allude to the possibility of closing down Gitmo altogether.

For my money, the lesson here is that if someone gets the press to pay attention to the issues you want them to pay attention to, it's all good. And if the only way to get them to do that is for Howard Dean to say something incendiary, then that's how the game is played. As long as he doesn't make a daily habit out of this kind of stuff, I think Dean is doing the party a favor.

Kevin Drum 9:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BIG IDEAS....PART 5....Yes, I'm still on this kick. I'll explain later.

Today's subject is organized labor. If you could introduce (and get passed!) one big legislative change to labor law, what would it be? What's the single biggest thing we could do that would increase the scope and power of collective bargaining in the United States?

Kevin Drum 3:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WORK TIL YOU DROP....What was it that Howard Dean said about Republican leaders? Oh yes: "A lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives."

Via the New York Times, here's a good illustration of what Dean was talking about. It's a perfect example of how conservative elites are out of touch with the reality of people who do earn an honest living:

The most direct way to deal with the financial strain of [Social Security] is simply to raise the retirement age....But of all the options to shore up Social Security's finances, that ranks as one of the most unpopular, pollsters say. In a New York Times/CBS News Poll earlier this year, nearly 8 out of 10 respondents said they would oppose raising the age when people are eligible for Social Security benefits.

Political strategists say this issue is viewed very differently by policy experts, who may see nothing wrong with working longer...."In Washington, the focus is on the demographic reality that people live longer, and most of the people who are having this conversation wouldn't mind working well into their 70's and 80's," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. "But out in the country, most working people don't look forward to working forever."

The retirement age for full benefits is already 67, which means that the average joe who graduates from high school and gets his first job in 2005 faces a working career of 49 years. Does conservative infatuation with rugged individualism really extend to the point of forcing the meat packers and taxi drivers who voted for them to keep working even longer than that?

This is the kind of conversation that white collar college graduates can carry on without skipping a beat, but it doesn't go over quite so well in the heartland. There, the reality is that most people already retire at age 62. Less than a quarter keep working to 65, let alone 67 or 70. If you worked as a waitress or a pipefitter, you'd do the same, but apparently bright young Republican congressional staffers are too out of touch to figure this out.

If we insist on "fixing" Social Security, there are better ways than increasing the retirement age. I have some suggestions here, and Social Security expert Bob Ball has some here. It's pretty simple stuff.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RECRUITING PROBLEMS....Here's the key paragraph in today's Washington Post story about shortfalls in Army recruitment:

Violent, long deployments to Iraq and a sound job market at home have combined to reduce what the Army calls the "propensity to enlist" the percentage of young Americans willing to consider Army service which dropped from 11 percent last year to about 7 percent this year.

That's a big drop. I assume that the vast majority of new recruits come from high school graduating classes, and a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the Army's annual goal of 80,000 active-duty recruits amounts to about 3% of this year's graduates. If only 7% are even willing to consider Army service, that means Army recruiters have to close the deal with a full half of their prospects. That's a daunting close rate for any salesman.

Which might explain desperate tactics like this. The linked story is about Marine Corps recruiters, but you get the idea.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FOX NEWS IN ACTION....This is amusing. Apparently the throng of reporters covering yesterday's meeting between Howard Dean and Harry Reid got a little....carried away. Brian Montopoli of CJR Daily summarizes the scene:

Cutting through the "cacophony of competing screams" from the press was Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson, who asked Dean, in light of his recent comments, if he hated white Christians. Dean didn't dignify that with a response, and Reid tried to talk about a "positive agenda," but Wilson continued his line of questioning, prompting Democratic Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin to ask sardonically if Wilson was the one running the press conference.

....Thanks to the magic of blogs, we also get a bit of the backstory to share....When [Washington Post reporter Mark] Leibovich asked Wilson who he was, Wilson screamed back, "Who the fuck are YOU?" According to AMERICAblog and Wonkette, Leibovich asked the question because "Wilson was apparently wearing no credential of any kind ... and behaving 'bizarrely angry.'"

Those blogs also claim Leibovich said later that he asked Wilson who he was "because of his incredibly pointed questions"; Leibovich, say the blogs, "wondered whether or not [Wilson] was a rogue Republican staffer." All three blogs wrote that Wilson later stormed down Senate halls, screaming obscenities.

That's Fox for you. All class, all the time.

Kevin Drum 6:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RIGHT WING LOONS....Pennsylvania congress-loon Curt Weldon gets letters:

"Dear Curt," reads one memo excerpt from "Ali"...."An attack against an atomic plant by a plane, the name mentioned, but not clear it begins with 'SEA'....[Seattle?]." Another reads: "Dear Curt:....I confirm again a terrorist attack within the United States is planned before the American elections."

Before you jump out of your chair to call your aunt in Seattle and see if she's all right, read all of Laura Rozen's story about Weldon, the mysterious "Ali," and the con man behind him. It turns out that even "Ali" thinks Weldon is nuts.

It's true that there are conspiracy loons on the left too. But to get a glimpse of the genuine 200-proof article, you really have to hang out at the right wing taverns. There's just nothing to compare.

Kevin Drum 2:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS....In the Washington Post today, Eugene Robinson is the latest to note the media's ongoing obsession with damsels in distress. The latest DiD, of course, is Natalee Holloway, object of an ongoing search in Aruba:

Holloway assumed the mantle from her predecessor, the Runaway Bride....Before the Runaway Bride, there were too many damsels to provide a full list, but surely you remember the damsel elite: Laci Peterson. Elizabeth Smart. Lori Hacking. Chandra Levy. JonBenet Ramsey. We even found, or created, a damsel amid the chaos of war in Iraq: Jessica Lynch.

....But of course the damsels have much in common besides being female....A damsel must be white. This requirement is nonnegotiable....She must be attractive also nonnegotiable.

Actually, Robinson forgot the DiD who came in between the Runaway Bridge and Holloway: Schapelle Corby, the attractive, white, Australian beautician who was recently sent to jail for allegedly smuggling marijuana into Indonesia. I'm going to take a wild guess and estimate that dozens of foreigners have been sent to jail for smuggling drugs into Indonesia in the past year alone, but Corby is the only one to get splashed all over CNN's front page. Can you guess why?

(Answer: According to a cable news employee who was willing to state the obvious on an anonymous basis, "We showcase missing, young, white, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers. It's about beating the competition and ad dollars.")

The tabloidization of everything is, frankly, a little more important than whether or not Elisabeth Bumiller is tough enough on the Bush White House. But there's more to it than just that. Obsessive coverage of DiDs is just one of several phenomena that continues to convince Americans especially suburban, white Americans that the world is a far more dangerous place than it really is. The rate of kidnappings and missing children has actually plummeted in recent years, but a constant drumbeat of TV coverage focused on DiDs and kids presents a compelling visual narrative that's the exact opposite of reality.

Of course, there are still a few media outlets that have obstinately refused to join the tabloid trend, but they too are under pressure to change. In fact, I have a question for LA Times critic-in-chief Mickey Kaus: I noticed this morning that the Times splashed today's freeway closure all over their front page (perhaps because this one was closer to downtown?) but limited their coverage of Holloway to a 3-inch "In Brief" blurb on A4. Does this count as improvement or continuing cluelessness? What's the box score?

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

CONGRESSIONAL HEALTH INSURANCE AND THE VOUCHER PLAN....I have failed to emphasize that the voucher plan is a lot like the insurance program for Senators and members of Congress.

Politicians are part of the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program. They have a choice of between 5 and 10 health plans in each city. Some are HMOs, some are regular insurance with preferred provider programs. They select a plan they like, the federal government pays a large portion of the premium, and they pay the rest. For more expensive plans with a lot of choices of doctors and hospitals and more services, Senators and Congressmen pay more. For the basic plan they pay a little premium. Not every plan offered in a city is included they are screened by the Office of Personnel Management.

Does this sound like the voucher plan we have proposed? You bet, except with the added advantage that for the basic plan people would not pay any premium. They would only pay a premium for services above the basic plan. So the Universal Healthcare Voucher plan we have proposed is even better than what Senators and members of Congress now get.

If it's good enough for them, why not for every American?

Ezekiel Emanuel 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

IS THE VA THE MODEL?....The VA is currently a wonderfully operated system and delivers excellent care largely because it has integrated IT and quality assessments into its delivery model much better than other health care providers.

First, though, it should be recognized that the VA was not always this good. It went through a long period of being terrible medicine. Having a captive population for a long time does not guarantee anything about quality care unless the incentives are right to continue to deliver that care. A guaranteed government establishment does not necessarily guarantee that incentive. Indeed, many of the VA's innovations were possible precisely because it was perceived to be delivering bad care before.

Second, although the long term nature of the VA relationship promotes investments in prevention, this is something that can be obtained in other ways. I have already suggested that there might be significant advantages to enrollment every three years rather than annually, which is costly without many benefits as an incentive. In addition, key preventive strategies that are a benefit to the system but not to any individual insurer could be mandated by the Federal Health Board.

Third, there is simply no way to make the VA system applicable to the whole country. There is simply a scale problem. We have a few million vets and scaling up to 250 million Americans is impossible in less than two decades. Furthermore, this is like the British National Health Service. Can you imagine Americans accepting that? Dead on arrival, as they say in Washington.

But there might be ways to let the VA compete as a health plan and accept vouchers from people who want service in the VA system. We could allow the VA to compete with Kaiser and others. This seems to me eminently reasonable.

Ezekiel Emanuel 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

VOUCHERS AND THE VHA... Kevin asked me if I had any final questions for Zeke Emanuel about his and Victor Fuchs' proposal to create universal health care vouchers. I have two. Both stem from a piece we ran by Phil Longman on the astonishing success the Veterans Hospital Administration (VHA) is having in controlling costs and improving quality.

First, Phil demonstrated pretty convincingly that the VHA owes its success to the fact that it has clients it knows will (almost certainly) not leave for another health care provider. Thus, it knows that its upfront investment in quality control and case-management-based information technology and preventive care and so forth will pay off economically for the VHA in the long run. That's something most health insurers and providers can't count on. They know the opposite: that their patients will flit about from provider to provider, insurer to insurer, based on which insurer their employer chooses. Under Zeke's plan, it seems to me, that flitting about will continue, even accelerate, as families change insurers to get better deals or to fit their changing life stage circumstances. Doesn't that mean there will be no incentive for these insurers to invest in the technology and systems we know are crucial to controlling costs and improving quality?

Second, Phil argues that because the VHA is so good at what it does, and because there are so many empty VHA hospitals in certain parts of the country, and more empty beds coming as the GI-heavy World War II generation leaves us, that it would be in our national interest to expand eligibility for VHA to other categories of patients besides vets. For instance, do two years of AmeriCorps, and you're in or you can deed your benefits to your parents. Or how about letting the VHA take over bankrupt inner-city hospitals? My question is, would Zeke's voucher plan allow for this kind of expansion? Or, as one commenter to this debate noted somewhere, what's wrong with letting government-provided healthcare and private healthcare compete? Advocates of school vouchers say parents should get to choose between public and private schools. Why not afford the same kind of choice to patients?

Paul Glastris 7:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SECURITY IN IRAQ....A single story provides only a snapshot. But Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru provide a pretty discouraging snapshot today about the likelihood that Iraqi forces will ever be able to take over responsibility for internal security from American troops.

There are three perspectives at work here. First, here's the brass:

Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Taluto, commander of the 42nd Infantry Division...called the Iraqi forces "improved and improving."...."I can tell you, making assessments, I think we're on target," he said in an interview.

Here's a junior officer who's actually responsible for training an Iraqi unit:

"I know the party line. You know, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, five-star generals, four-star generals, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld: The Iraqis will be ready in whatever time period," said 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato...."But from the ground, I can say with certainty they won't be ready before I leave. And I know I'll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don't think they'll be ready then."

And here's an Iraqi himself:

"We don't want to take responsibility; we don't want it," said Amar Mana, 27, an Iraqi private whose forehead was grazed by a bullet during an insurgent attack in November. "Here, no way. The way the situation is, we wouldn't be ready to take responsibility for a thousand years."

Read the whole thing. It's not a pretty picture.

Kevin Drum 1:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SCANDAL FATIGUE....The Carpetbagger reviews this week's Republican scandals. And, as he notes, the week isn't over yet.

Kevin Drum 12:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 9, 2005
By: Ezekiel Emanuel

THE POLITICS OF HEALTHCARE REFORM....He who does not know history is bound to repeat it.

There have been many attempts at health care reform. While defeat has been "over determined," in almost every case there is a single group that is able to help ensure defeat.

  1. 1913-14 Amazingly, the AMA supported universal health coverage but unions opposed it, thinking they could get a better deal by negotiating with employers themselves. World War I and anything German helped to defeat universal coverage too.

  2. 1930s Franklin Roosevelt thought he couldn't get universal coverage because it was too socialistic. He thought it was even harder than Social Security.

  3. 1948 Harry Truman's effort was defeated in large part because of the AMA.

  4. 1964-65 Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare and Medicaid because his advisors thought universal coverage not possible. His advisors even told Johnson not to sign Medicare and Medicaid in Independence, Missouri, as a gesture to Truman, because they thought these programs would be labelled socialist medicine. Johnson rejected that advice, but the advice itself shows how tough the fight is.

  5. 1971-72 The combined forces of Kennedy, Nixon and Wilbur Mills could not pass universal coverage, in part because liberals would not give Nixon anything and Wilbur Mills ended up in a sex scandal with Fannie Fox.

  6. 1993-94 Clinton's plan went down to defeat for many reasons. Hostility of business and insurers certainly played the biggest role, but liberal unwillingness to compromise with Sen. John Chafee (Lincoln Chafee's father) was another.

There is always some group against universal coverage that's able to prevent it from being enacted. Sometimes it is the AMA and sometimes it is liberal groups. To enact universal coverage we need to line up behind a plan even if it may not be our preferred plan.

For those who think single payer is still best, just look at Canada's Supreme Court ruling today. The highest court there said that "the evidence in this case shows that delays in the public health care system are widespread and that in some serious cases, patients die as a result." People are now expecting "a slew of lawsuits challenging provincial health care laws" in Canada. Opponents of single payer will latch onto this, interview Canadians upset with the system, and do another Harry and Louise.

Ezekiel Emanuel 11:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BIG IDEAS....PART 4....Today's subject is the social safety net. Think of this as broadly including economic programs aimed at reducing poverty or helping the working poor. Examples include the minimum wage, EITC, food stamps, Medicare, and Social Security.

What's missing here? If you could pass one big piece of legislation to add to our current collection of safety net programs, what would it be?

Kevin Drum 8:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LINDSEY GRAHAM, PROPHET....Here is Senator Lindsey Graham on May 23, immediately after the filibuster compromise was announced:

The deal is that five nominees who have been filibustered will get an up-or-down vote and some will be confirmed and some won't. The dirty little secret is that there have been some of these nominees that will not get Republican votes.

Two of the five were shoo-ins, so what Graham was telling us was that of the three controversial nominees (Owen, Brown, and Pryor), Republicans themselves would end up killing at least one of them. So how did things turn out? Here is the New York Times today:

Judge William H. Pryor Jr., one of President Bush's embattled judicial nominees, was confirmed by the Senate today for a seat on the federal appeals court that covers Florida, Georgia and Alabama....Judge Pryor, 43, is the last of three controversial Bush court nominees to win confirmation.

That didn't work out quite the way Graham suggested, did it?

Kevin Drum 8:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

BIG BUSINESS AND HEALTHCARE....I really do think big business wants out. But wanting out and supporting something else are different animals.

Why is today different from 1993-94? During the early days of the Clinton administration, big business was willing to support health care reform. What happened was that when the details of Clinton's package became clear, they decided they could get a better deal from managed care than Clinton care. For five years or so they did get a relatively good deal. Health care costs moderated. But that was only by squeezing down payments to doctors and hospitals, not by changing the delivery system in any real way.

Today there is no managed care alternative. The only alternative is just stopping to offer health care. This is possible for small firms since 2001 more than 5 million jobs have lost health insurance coverage. But it is a bit harder for big firms.

What big business needs is an alternative it can live with that will turn its frustration I want out of health care! into positive support for a reform proposal. Previously the two alternatives looked very bad for business. Mandates with subsidies kind of like Clinton's proposal, play (offer health care) or pay (pay a tax to get your workers coverage) is not tolerable to business. They want out of health care, not a mandate to cover it.

Single payer is something they are instinctively against and will not support.
They are tempted by medical savings accounts. Witness Hank McKinnel of Pfizer, who recently endorsed them. There are many problems with this approach. I have previously mentioned some. But the best way is to think of it as the health care version of private retirement accounts you are on your own tab and bear a lot more risk and expense.

I think vouchers offer them what big business wants. There is coverage for their workers. It's financed by a predictable Value Added Tax that doesn't fall on business and could be used in interesting ways for restraining imports and promoting exports. VAT is something that both Democrats and Republicans seem to be forming a consensus behind because it encourages savings and taxes consumption. Finally, getting out of health care will allow business to raise wages and hire people based on productivity, not the drag of fringe benefits.

Ezekiel Emanuel 5:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COMMENTS....Shakespeare's Sister posts an odd observation today about well known bloggers:

Ive seen (if memory serves) Kos note at MyDD and Drum note at his place, and Im sure Ive read it elsewhere, but I cant remember where off the top of my head, that one of the big dogs assumed to be a man is, in fact, a woman. I have my suspicions about whom that is, but I dont know for sure. Would this blogger have become one of the big dogs if she hadnt hidden behind a veneer of manhood? Who knows?

Hmmm. It wasn't here, at least not on the main blog. In fact, there aren't very many big bloggers left who are still anonymous, so I'm not even sure I could come up with a candidate. Has anyone else ever heard this rumor?

The rest of the post (actually, the main point of the post) is about whether women are unfairly ignored/dismissed in blog comment threads. Shakes points to a mini-survey project that says the answer is yes, but this is sort of like that famous research project that showed that drunk men find women more attractive. You don't really need a research project to figure that out, do you? Still, like so many things in life, it can't hurt to keep pointing it out.

On a more personal note, Nancy Goldstein notes in comments that I'm a "truly nice guy" (thanks, Nancy!) but that despite this my comment section is unusually heavily infested with trolls. This has long puzzled me too. All I need now is a research project that shows me how to get rid of them.

UPDATE: Ah yes. As Paul points out in comments, the rumor was about MediaWhoresOnline. Is MWO man or woman? Or neither? No one knows!

UPDATE 1.5: According to Eric Alterman, the "guiding sprit" behind MediaWhoresOnline was Jennifer Kelly. I didn't know that until now.

UPDATE 2: As a few people point out, comment registration would help the troll problem. It would also help the comment spam problem. This is above my pay grade, I'm afraid, but it's definitely a possibility for the future.

Kevin Drum 3:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE AND BIG BUSINESS....The single biggest problem with having insurance companies involved in a national healthcare plan is adverse selection. If the government pays, say, a flat $5,000 per person, insurance companies have a huge incentive to sign up only young, healthy people who are likely to rack up less than $5,000 per year in medical bills. Older, sicker people will find themselves out of luck. This is what makes the healthcare industry fundamentally different from the cell phone industry or the soda industry.

Zeke suggests several solutions to this problem here, but also admits that it needs more research. I'm inclined to leave it at that for the moment because I don't want to spend this entire healthcare conversation talking about insurance companies. For now, I think we all agree that it's a real problem that doesn't yet have a perfect solution.

Instead, I want to ask Zeke about something else. In his Monthly article, he suggests that big business is ready to support universal healthcare:

The turnaround of the attitude of business towards reform is one of the biggest changes from 1994 and the first health-care fight....Since 2000, health-care costs have risen dramatically, breaking the backs of companies, and there are no more savings to wring out of the current system....Nearly half of 1,400 chief financial officers surveyed by Robert Half Management Resources said they expected health care to account for the biggest increase in their cost of doing business over the next year. Removing these costs from their balance sheets and restoring a measure of predictability to wage and benefit costs would be irresistible to businesses.

This is music to my ears, since I've long thought that universal healthcare will become a reality only when large corporation finally get tired of the healthcare fight and decide that they'd rather hand off the problem to the federal government.

And as Zeke says, this makes perfect sense. What corporation wants to be in the healthcare business? It's a cost nightmare, it's an administrative nightmare, it's a recruiting nightmare, and it puts them at a disadvantage compared to foreign competitors who don't have healthcare costs. A level playing field not to mention the simple relief of getting rid of a huge source of aggravation should be irresistible.

But as Matt Yglesias points out today, a lot of people have thought the same thing in years past and come to ruin. It may be irrational, but big business continues to fight the idea of national healthcare anyway.

So here's my next question for Zeke: do you really think the attitude of big business toward national healthcare is about to go through a sea change? I've been on the lookout for signs of this for years, but so far I've seen only the faintest of glimmers. Have you actually presented your ideas to large corporations and gotten genuinely enthusiastic responses? Are any major business lobbies open to supporting a national healthcare plan? As Matt says, "If this plan is so business-friendly, where's the business support?"

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESSIVES AND NATIONAL SECURITY....Why do progressives have such a hard time articulating and promoting an alternative national security vision? Lorelei Kelly says it's largely because we don't have our act together:

Thinking back on my work on Capitol Hill, let me give one example of how this works on a day to day basis of funding priorities. When I worked on defense issues for a Member of Congress, I received a three foot high stack of mail every week. From the World Peace Alliance types, I would get books and long testimonial documents, lists of signatures and sometimes even an origami peace crane. From the submarine industry, I would receive a comprehensive district by district graphic breakdown of every single widget, dollar and job which was then indexed to every single district in the state (They did this for all 50 states) Plus its relation to the larger national defense strategy.

It was user-friendly and simple and, unlike the origami, required no assembly. So when it came time to vote on the defense bill, all the legislative assistant had to do was take a quick look at the district graphic to see if the Member even a liberal Dem could risk a no vote to make an anti-pork point. As you can see from voting records, not many did.

I know this isn't really news to anybody, but it's a fact of life worth pointing out once in a while. This is what we're up against, and we need to do more than chant "Out of Iraq Now!" if we want to make changes. Who on our side is doing the tedious but genuinely influential work that Lorelei's submarine guys are doing?

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOWNING STREET MEMO....Tim Dunlop summarizes yesterday's fudging from Tony Blair and George Bush over the Downing Street Memo. Here's the basic story for the attention span impaired: the head of MI6 is a bumbling liar and we never intended to go to war. Don't listen to a word he said.

Kevin Drum 12:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DARFUR UPDATE....NATO is planning to help airlift additional African Union troops into Darfur:

Officials said Nato would only fly peacekeepers to Darfur and provide some support staff to help the AU run a headquarters. Only Canada has expressed a willingness to provide helicopters to fly peacekeepers within Darfur.

....The Nato secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, told ministers today: "The situation in that region is appalling, and we must do all that is in our power in coordination with other organisations, starting with the EU to assist the African Union in its efforts."

This isn't much, especially considering that we're two years into this crisis. In fact, it's kind of pathetic that NATO isn't willing to do any more than provide a limited airlift for other troops.

Still, it's better than nothing.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

INSURANCE COMPANIES....In the post below, Kevin asked why Victor and I included a role for insurance companies in our Universal Healthcare Voucher plan. There's more to this than just political compromise. We think there are important reasons to keep them in the system.

First, as Kevin suggested, we believe that they can provide an engine to innovate in delivery of services. And with vouchers there will be several incentives to do so stronger incentives than in the current system. Currently, most individuals do not have a choice among insurance companies. Their employers pick one and they get that one. Vouchers expand choice and this will require insurance companies to compete for individuals.

Second, to compete for individuals the companies will have to distinguish themselves. They will have to work to be efficient and use the savings to offer more services.

Third, how do we prevent them from "cherry picking healthy people and lemon dropping the sick"? This is a serious problem when you offer a capitated rate the same payment regardless of how sick a person is. There are several ways to prevent this: for example, prohibiting insurance companies from dropping people or excluding coverage for pre-existing conditions; guaranteeing people that they can be enrolled in whatever plan they want; and requiring minimum services for many ailments.

The voucher plan offers other interesting ways to prevent this cherry picking. One idea I like is multi-year contracts. If people sign up for 3 years then it is harder to screen for who will get a costly illness and thus cherry pick. Cancer is unpredictable in that way, for instance.

Another idea is to penalize companies when people leave and require them to pay a portion of their next year's medical costs. This has the problem of requiring a lot of administration but creates interesting incentives.

But the best way to prevent this cherry picking is what is called risk adjusting premiums. Adjust how much is paid by age, sex, smoking status, etc., and you can really reduce the incentive to avoid the sick. With finer risk adjustment the incentive will substantially decline. We are not quite there yet with the technology for perfect risk adjustment. The Federal Health Board will have to invest in research on risk adjustment to fine tune. And although a lot of data will be needed, this data will be good for both quality monitoring and risk adjustment ensuring profits do not undermine quality of care a good two for one.

Ezekiel Emanuel 10:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE CAGE MATCH....DAY 2....Our story so far: one of the features of Ezekiel Emanuel's Universal Healthcare Voucher proposal is that while it is a universal healthcare plan, it preserves the role of insurance companies in the system. This is a problem. It turns out that my readers think the proper role of insurance companies is to be dismembered, their office towers reduced to rubble, and their executives fed to the wolves.

My first instinct was to chalk this up to irreconcilable differences and move on to another, hopefully more tractable subject. But no. Instead I want to drill into this in more depth, because it's clearly a critical feature of his proposal. In fact, if I can simplify more than Zeke would probably like, the rest of his proposal is fairly ordinary national healthcare, much like France's or Canada's. It's the role of insurance companies that really sets it apart.

I'll confess that my initial instinct was pretty much with my readers on this: I'm skeptical that insurance companies provide any added value in the healthcare industry. But there's a thread of an argument running through Zeke's posts that I'd like to tease out, because the more I think about it, the more interesting it gets. Let me take a shot at it.

To begin with, the default version of national healthcare is a simple single-payer system: when you get sick, you go see a doctor and the doctor sends the bill to the government. If you need a specialist, you get a referral and the specialist sends her bill to the government. A government panel of some kind decides what procedures are covered and how much doctors are reimbursed for them.

The problem with this system is that there's no competition. Everyone offers the exact same services based on whatever's allowed by the government panel. Everyone gets paid the same amount. If your service is so bad that you have no patients, then you'll go out of business, but that's about it.

Instead, what if we had, say, ten or twenty healthcare providers, all offering different plans? They're still tightly regulated, and there are minimums that all of them have to offer, but they're paid enough that they can afford to offer more than just the minimum.

This means that beyond the required minimum, they can innovate. Plan A networks its doctors together HMO style. All your services are available in a single building all at once! Plan B offers incentives for preventive care and covers acupuncture. Plan C specializes in low income workers and offers free taxi service to take you to your appointments. Plan D has high doctor-patient ratios but also offers more services, while Plan E is just the opposite. They all have an incentive to cut costs because their government reimbursement is a set amount, but they also have an incentive to offer state-of-the-art services in order to attract more customers than their competitors.

The downside of all this is that insurance companies are for-profit enterprises. If they ring up profits of 5%, that's 5% of total spending that could have gone to healthcare instead of insurance company stockholders.

On the other hand, competition and innovation should more than make up for that. It does in other industries, after all. The end result is that consumers end up with more choice and better quality because there are dozens of companies competing for their business.

So here's my question to Zeke: do I have this right? Is this the argument you're making? Or are insurance companies just a necessary evil because you think Americans will never support a European-style single payer plan?

Kevin Drum 1:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 8, 2005
By: Ezekiel Emanuel

ANSWERS....to some of your questions from the comment threads:

  1. Why don't we want people to take vouchers directly to doctors and hospitals?

    That is the notion of individual medical accounts. They completely undermine the notion of cross-subsidization and are very harmful to sick people. If we rely on catastrophic insurance we will suddenly see a lot of people in that category because some medical procedures are, if not optional, then at least can be scheduled to game the system. A problem with catastrophic coverage is that it encourages discretionary use of tests and procedures to get over the threshold. It also shapes research of technology companies to encourage services that will be covered.

  2. Why isn't malpractice cited as a cause for inflation?

    Simply because every study that is done has shown that it does not cause health care inflation. Malpractice is a problem. Many people who are harmed get no compensation and many people who are not really harmed get huge compensation. It needs to be reformed substantially but not because it drives health care inflation.

  3. What is the incentive for small insurance companies to buy in?

    Currently there are about 1300 health insurance companies. A lot are small market players that don't add anything. Under vouchers there will probably be substantial consolidation, with many of the small companies bought out or bankrupt.

    By the way, we have presented this idea to many places and probably the coolest reception we have had was at Kaiser. This is certainly not a Kaiser plan. Whomever thinks that this is a Kaiser plan because Vic Fuchs is the Kaiser professor at Stanford knows little about the world. His professorship was donated long before and by a foundation that was not affiliated with the health plan of the same name. Conspiracy theories may be true in some cases, but not this one.

  4. What is the incentive to provide quality service for health plans?

    First there is market pressures. People will have vouchers and can vote with their feet. It is important that today most Americans have no choice of health plan or insurance only their companies choose, and they typically choose on cost not on service. Vouchers therefore expand market input. Second, the Federal Health Board will systematically monitor satisfaction and outcomes and will be able, like the Federal Reserve Board with banks, to make adjustments to provide incentives for good performance.

Ezekiel Emanuel 11:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

WHY UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE VOUCHERS?....I guess I am a bit perplexed by people's reaction to the Universal Healthcare Voucher proposal. We offered this new idea for 3 reasons:

1) We don't have universal coverage now. It is not as if the choice is between vouchers and universal coverage with single payer. The alternative is between a broken healthcare system robbing all other programs and vouchers.

2) Over the last 80 years we have not been able to enact a universal single payer system. Not Roosevelt, not Truman, not Kennedy, not Johnson, not Nixon, not Clinton could get a universal single payer plan passed. What hope is there for that proposal? Maybe some unique combination of circumstances would make it possible depression with war and civil unrest but unlikely. But the onus is on single payer advocates to show why it is likely given this history and that seems an unlikely proposition, a pipe dream.

3) A single government program would be massive 7 times larger than Medicare and 5 times larger than any European program and 10 times larger than the Canadian system. Further, government programs are slow to adapt. We need to harness other institutions and also the flexibility and innovativeness of the market while protecting people.

These three considerations lead to vouchers.

Finally, we should not react to healthcare vouchers like we react to education vouchers. There are good arguments against education vouchers taking money away from schools, siphoning off the best students, fragmenting a universally guaranteed benefit. None of those arguments hold for health care in 2005. Healthcare is not universal public education. We don't have a universal health care system. Good risk patients are already siphoned off it is called employment based insurance. Vouchers guarantee universality with cost control in a format that can be enacted in America.

Ezekiel Emanuel 8:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BIG IDEAS....PART 3....What topic should I address today? How about....taxes.

Same rules as usual: I'm looking for one thing, a single big legislative proposal that would change the way we pay taxes in America. Tell me (a) what you hate the most about our current tax system and (b) if you could propose any one thing to change it, what it would be.

Kevin Drum 7:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

BASHING HEALTH PLANS....I agree with many people who hate their current insurance company. When we switched companies, every bill for my children in the first year was kicked back stating it was a pre-existing condition even when the problem was ear infections and the like which are clearly not pre-existing conditions. We all have complaints.

However, there are very good, if not perfect, health plans. Think of Kaiser or Group Health of Puget Sound or IHC. These are well run plans that take care of tens of millions of Americans. They critically evaluate drugs; they provide useful inforamtion and guidelines to their physicians; they integrate care so care is delivered in the appropriate place by the appropriate care provider. Again, doubtless they make mistakes, but they are very good.

Furthermore, we expect our proposed Federal Health Board to monitor these healthplans carefully, obtaining patient satisfaction and outcomes data and ensuring they are responsive.

Having everyone get care in those types of organizations is better than just a single standalone doctor or leaving individuals to fend for themselves in "consumer driven health care."

We need to be a little nuanced in our judgments instead of lumping everyone together as if there were no differences between Healthsouth and Kaiser or Group Health Cooperative.

Ezekiel Emanuel 5:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

WHY SINGLE PAYER WON'T WORK....PART 2....You are right, on occasion we can get things like Social Security and Medicare. But remember how unique the circumstances were that got us those things not unique enough to get us universal single payer in over 80 years of trying.

We got Social Security because of the depression. And remember, Roosevelt did not run on implementing Social Security he ran on balanced budgets three years into the worst depression ever! And Medicare we got with the most politically powerful president in recent years, after the murder of another president and the largest landslide victory in American history.

These tremendous social changes are possible. We can have single payer if we have 1) depression, 2) major war or 3) major social unrest. You want to wait and gamble?

And don't be so pleased with Medicare. It has worked for 40 years but is now going to break the bank. In 2006 it will consume 1 of every 30 dollars in America just for the health care of 14% of the population. By 2020 the hospital money will run out. By 2075 it will consume every federal tax dollar. It has runaway inflation with no brakes. It is robbing every other worthy government program education, arts, environment, etc. At this point, Medicare is not something to emulate but something to fear.

Ezekiel Emanuel 4:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

WHY SINGLE PAYER WON'T WORK....A lot of people seem to think we should just junk the current healthcare system, forget insurance companies, and implement a single payer system.

There are many problems with this approach. The biggest is that it will never work in America. You may not like it you may like the Canadian system better but Americans are simply never going to endorse a Canadian style single payer system. That is a pipe dream. As long as we hold on as hard as we can to a single payer alternative, we only empower those pushing medical savings accounts and marginalize our views.

There are also large differences beteween the USA and Canada like 10 times the population. Another is that they are much more egalitarian than Americans are. Again, we may not like this, but if we are trying to solve a problem we have to work within the ideological constraints of the United States, not try to create a utopia that will never be achieved here and act as if it exists.

Finally Canadians believe in good government, Americans are suspicious of government. The Canadian system is not one single payer, but one for each province run by provincal governments. Do you trust individual states to be able to run a health care system for their citizens? Seen what happened to Medicaid when we tried that in the USA do you want to repeat that?

Ezekiel Emanuel 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NEWS ROUNDUP....From the Guardian:

Revealed: How Oil Giant Influenced Bush
President's George Bush's decision not to sign the United States up to the Kyoto global warming treaty was partly a result of pressure from ExxonMobil, the world's most powerful oil company, and other industries, according to US State Department papers seen by the Guardian.

From the New York Times:

Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming
A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents....Before going to the White House in 2001, [Philip Cooney] was the "climate team leader" and a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group representing the interests of the oil industry.

From the Los Angeles Times:

U.S. Eases Demands on Tobacco Companies
Justice Department lawyers Tuesday asked a federal judge for sweeping sanctions against the biggest tobacco companies, saying the government had proved a 50-year industry conspiracy to mislead the public with "half truths, deceptions and lies that continue to this day."

But without explanation, government attorneys drastically reduced their most expensive demand, scaling back a proposed industry-funded smoking-cessation program from $130 billion to $10 billion.

....A person familiar with the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the change was "forced on the tobacco team by higher-level, politically appointed officials of the Justice Department," including Associate Atty. Gen. Robert McCallum, who oversees the civil division....Before his appointment in the Justice Department in 2001, McCallum had been a partner at Alston & Bird, an Atlanta-based firm that has done trademark and patent work for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.

Can you spot the trend here?

Kevin Drum 2:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezekiel Emanuel

WHY KEEP INSURANCE COMPANIES?....I detect a bit of skepticism, even cynicism, about the role of insurance companies in the Universal Healthcare Voucher Plan. There are some pragmatic reasons related to politics for including them in the UHV plan, but these are relatively minor. There are important reasons to maintain delivery systems.

First, you fail to mention that in many countries with universal health coverage such as Germany there are intermediaries that are like health plans. In Germany they are called Sickness Funds. So the British and Canadian models are not the only types. Furthermore, the British are moving to create risk bearing entities that get flat fees to coordinate and provide coverge to people. Hospital trusts and such. In addition, many countries, such as Canada, find the system of fee-for-service without a coordinating body like a health plan to be bad, not good!

Second, so why have these health plans? They can integrate care more efficiently than a government which might cover 250 million people. Integration of care making sure physicians use the most cost-efficient drugs, making sure care is delivered efficiently in the cheapest setting, evaluating the costs and benefits of interventions, coordinating outpatient with inpatient care and nursing home care, etc. are functions that cannot be achieved by fee-for-service to doctors or government. Here health plans are a huge advantage in the delivery of care.

Third, it is possible to create financial incentives for the health plans to do this well in ways it is much harder to do with physicians. By providing a fixed payment for care, health plans have an incentive to provide care efficiently. Physicians care for too few patients for this to work and they do not have the resources to develop systems for evaluating where care is best delivered. Indeed, that there are so many individual physicians or small practices is a major reason the adoption of information technology is so bad in medicine. Big organizations but not too big that they are dealing with tens of millions of people have the incentive, and size to use IT effectively to make care better.

Ezekiel Emanuel 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"THE BLACK BOY WAS SOMEWHERE HE SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN"....Mark Kleiman follows up today on the story of Billy Ray Johnson of Linden, Texas. Two years ago, a gang of good ole boys

drove the 42-year-old mentally retarded black man to a cow pasture where a crowd of white youths was having a party. They got Johnson drunk, they made him dance, they jeered at him with racial epithets.

Then, according to court testimony, one of Johnson's assailants punched him in the face, knocking him out cold. They tossed his unconscious body into the back of a pickup and dumped him by the side of a dirt road, on top of a mound of stinging fire ants.

The town's mayor says none of this was racially motivated. "The black boy was somewhere he shouldn't have been," he told the Chicago Tribune, "although they brought him out there."

Conservatives complain relentlessly that the mainstream media is too focused on its coastal enclaves and doesn't do enough to introduce its audience to heartland America. I agree. They really ought to pay more attention to this stuff.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORAL DECAY....Over at Tapped, Garance Franke-Ruta notes that married parents are slipping away from the Democratic party. They might vote like liberals when they're young and single, but after they've walked down the aisle and had a kid or two, they turn into staunch conservatives. How can we turn that around?

One sure way not to go about reaching out to married parents is to dismiss their concerns. And that means the folks at magazines like this one, too, need to consider their role in promoting an image of liberalism as utterly inconsiderate of their moral concerns. Tapped, in particular, went in for a lot of criticizing of Hillary Clinton when she spoke out on violent video games, which I found saddening. Not because I don't think there were valid and clever points to be made, but because it seemed so self-destructive for avowed liberals to adopt a kind of sophisticated adolescent libertarianism as their stance toward the world, and to cast political figures in the role of moralizing parents whose constraints must be cast aside.

Single, childless, coastal elitist Matt Yglesias objects, as he has in previous rounds of this debate, but is perhaps too clever for his own good when he suggests that he's really just taking one for the team: "If Hillary Clinton (or anyone else) wants to sell herself to Middle America as the kind of Democrat who'll crack down on cultural libertinism, then getting stridently attacked for it by the likes of me are only going to help her gain credibility."

Let's cut the crap, shall we? You can make cogent arguments that violent video games have no effect on crime and moral decay. Ditto for stupid TV shows, internet porn, gangster rap, and cigarette ads. But it's the first sentence of Garance's paragraph that's the key one.

The point is not that we shouldn't make arguments based on research and statistics. Of course we should. The problem is that too often liberals aren't making cogent arguments at all. Instead, they're simply mocking parents who are nervous about this stuff as troglodyte knuckle draggers, without offering so much as a shred of sympathy for the way they feel. That's a pretty guaranteed vote loser.

So sure, let's make our arguments. At the same time, though, let's also acknowledge parental fears as genuine instead of simply sneering at them. That just helps the other side.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE GUEST BLOGGING....In the June issue of the Monthly, Ezekiel Emanuel and Victor R. Fuchs propose a national healthcare plan called Universal Healthcare Vouchers:

Here's how it works.

Every household in America will receive a voucher entitling its members to enroll in a private health plan of their choice. All plans will be required by law to guarantee the basic features of what most Americans now receive from their insurers: doctors' visits, hospitalization, pharmaceuticals, and catastrophic coverage. These insurance policies will not cover everything. Viagra and cosmetic surgery will not be included, but Americans will still be able to purchase them and any other service or care with their own money.

Those with preexisting conditions or high medical costs will be protected because they will have guaranteed coverage with any plan they choose. UHVs solve the problem of adverse selection by adjusting the reimbursement value of the voucher to the differing risk levels an insurance company absorbs by taking on different patients. So, the payment to insurers for covering older, sicker patients will be higher than for younger, healthier Americans, eliminating the incentive to exclude high-risk patients.

Read the whole thing to learn further details behind their plan. (And don't let the "voucher" talk fool you. It seems to be there mostly as rhetorical jiu jitsu to befuddle conservatives, not because it has anything in common with, say, school vouchers.)

Zeke is going to be guest blogging here for the next few days to explain how UHVs work and why they have a chance of succeeding where more traditional plans don't. I'm going to act as his skeptical interrogator. Why skeptical? Not because I oppose universal healthcare, of course, but because I have some doubts about various features of his plan. Let's see if he can convince me, OK?

I'm going to start with insurance companies. A key part of the UHV plan is that it relies on private insurance companies to deliver healthcare, a very different approach from most other national healthcare schemes, in which doctors either work directly for the government (for example, Britain) or work for themselves but are reimbursed for their services by the government (for example, France). So here are my questions:

  • It appears to me that insurance companies are part of the UHV plan for purely political reasons: by keeping them in the system, they're less likely to fight against UHVs in Congress. Is this really the only reason insurance companies are part of the UHV plan? Are you just trying to buy them off, or do they truly have a role to play?

  • As you note, the problem with private insurance companies is adverse selection: they have a big incentive not to insure people who are sick (or likely to get sick). Your solution is to provide bigger vouchers to sicker people so that insurance companies will still want to cover them.

    I'd like to hear more about this. Is it really possible to efficiently match up supply and demand with a centralized system like this? Do you have any examples of similar systems where something like this has worked? And since your plan doesn't force insurance companies to cover people, what happens if there's no insurance company that wants to cover me because they think the government is lowballing the likely cost of my illness? Who insures me then?

Tomorrow I'll pick on something else. For now, though, I want to hear more about insurance companies. Do we really need them, or would we better off just girding ourselves for a huge fight and getting rid of them?

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JUDGES....I love polls. So many questions, so many weird and inexplicable answers. In today's Washington Post poll, for example, we learn that only 41% of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job (an opinion split evenly between Republicans and Democrats), but a full 61% approve of the way their congressman is doing his or her job. Apparently it's everyone else's congressmen who are screwing up the country so badly.

But enough of that. Here's a quick highlight that I found interesting: it looks to me like George Bush's weak spots are Social Security, Iraq, the economy, and stem cells. Not judges. If Democrats really think judicial nominations are an important battle, they'd better figure out a way to get the public on their side pronto. At the moment, this is a public opinion battle that liberals appear to be losing.

Kevin Drum 11:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMIC HANDWAVING....In the New York Times, Greg Mankiw tries to pretend that growing income inequality is inevitable if we want the overall economy to grow. Try to reduce income inequality, he says, and you just end up with a recession.

It's a nice try, but Brad DeLong plots the actual data and shows that Mankiw is talking through his hat. In fact, it looks pretty much the opposite to me. Go look at Brad's pretty charts and decide for yourself.

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By: Kevin Drum

BIG IDEAS....PART 2....Last night I asked about civil rights issues but said I was going to address feminist issues separately. So let's do that next.

It's the same deal as last time: if you could pass any single piece of federal legislation related to feminist issues, what would it be? Feel free to define this broadly, but again, you can only pick one thing.

If you had to choose, what would be the one big thing you'd like to see enshrined into law?

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By: Kevin Drum

CONTROLLING HISTORY....For those who are surprised at the fervor conservatives have brought in recent years to resuscitating Joe McCarthy's reputation, or, in recent days, to resuscitating Richard Nixon's, Mike Tomasky explains that conservatives understand how important historical revisionism is. That's why they continue to produce so many hit pieces against Bill Clinton more than four years after he left the Oval Office:

There is [a] reason these anti-Clinton tomes still appear with regularity, and liberals who criticize the Clintons from the left need to recognize it: The right knows that if its historical interpretation of Clintonism can prevail, liberalism as a project can be killed for decades. That is, if they can convince America over the next few crucial years (crucial because historical interpretations of Clintonism are just really beginning) that the Clinton era was not one of prosperity, peace, and a demonstration that government can deliver common goods but was, instead, one of corruption, turpitude, and a fat and happy people discarding moral values for the sake of higher mutual-fund values, they will have won an extremely important argument with serious long-term ramifications.

Orwell would have been proud.

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By: Kevin Drum

BARBARISM IN TEXAS....This story is almost too horrible for words. The details are a little thin, but here's the outline.

In 2003, Texas passed an anti-abortion law that instituted a 24-hour waiting period; required doctors to show women pictures of fetuses, tell them about adoption procedures, and warn them that an abortion could lead to breast cancer; and forced abortion providers to keep the identities of all their patients in their records. Plus one more thing, as the Fort Worth Weekly reported at the time:

The bill as passed also includes another requirement that managed to escape the floodlights of controversy and debate: Abortions from 16 weeks onward now can be performed only in hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers.

The clause is a major Catch-22. Very few Texas hospitals perform elective abortions, and the few that do charge extremely high fees and require that the patients go through complicated ethics reviews. And of the state's hundreds of surgical centers, none performs abortions.

So, with no place to get an abortion after 16 weeks, what does a panicky, 17-year-old girl do if she's four months pregnant? Erica Basoria decided to try to induce a miscarriage. When that didn't work, she asked her boyfriend to step on her stomach. A week later she miscarried.

This is all bad enough, but what comes next is fantastically worse: Texas also has a shiny new law criminalizing "fetal murder," and the fact that Basoria wanted a miscarriage in this case doesn't matter. Her boyfriend, Gerardo Flores of Lufkin, has been sentenced to 40 years in prison for his part in this tragic comic opera:

Flores' mother, Norma Flores, stood in stunned silence, surrounded by family members for several minutes after her son was led away by Sheriff Kent Henson.

Under state law, a woman cannot be charged for causing the deaths of her own fetuses for any reason.

....[Prosecutor Art] Bauereiss told jurors he was focused on Flores. He couldn't help that Basoria was outside the reach of the law, he said. If the babies had been killed after being born, it wouldn't have been so controversial, he said. "Think what a horrible crime this would be, he said. "We wouldn't hesitate to label it for what it is."

....Prosecutors chose not to pursue the death penalty against Flores, meaning he received an automatic life sentence with parole possible after 40 years.

This is the intersection of stupid kids, stupid laws, mendacious legislators, and fanatical prosecutors. It's what happens when states ban access to otherwise legal abortions and kids don't know where to turn. And if circumstances and the law had been slightly different, Bauereiss probably would have prosecuted Erica Basoria too and sought the death penalty for both.

It's like living under the Ayatollahs in Iran. It's simple barbarism.

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By: Kevin Drum

LACTIVISM....Barbara Walters said a few weeks ago that "the sight of a woman breast-feeding on an airplane next to her had made her uncomfortable." Ann Althouse, who thinks she ought to get over it, says she supports laws that allow nursing mothers to breastfeed in public:

I know what it's like to need to breastfeed and be in a situation where there's nowhere private to go. One time, back in the early 80s, I breastfed my baby at the Baseball Hall of Fame. I remember feeling I was doing something really wrong and that I was about to be discovered at any point and treated harshly. So I like these laws. What are you supposed to do on a plane? You can't occupy the bathroom that long, and anyway, that would be a disgusting environment for a baby.

The most ironic part of all this isn't really Walters's comment although that is ironic it's the fact that most of the opposition to public breastfeeding comes from the family values crowd. I guess family values only go just so far with these folks.

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY AND THE MILITARY....I have to admit that this is pretty odd. John Kerry has finally released his military records to the press and it turns out there's nothing new there. The Boston Globe reports:

The records...are mostly a duplication of what Kerry released during his 2004 campaign for president.

....The lack of any substantive new material about Kerry's military career in the documents raises the question of why Kerry refused for so long to waive privacy restrictions. An earlier release of the full record might have helped his campaign because it contains a number of reports lauding his service.

....But Kerry refused, even though it turned out that the records included commendations from some of the same veterans who were criticizing him.

Italics mine.

Kerry's refusal to release his records probably didn't directly hurt him that badly, but I'll bet it did hurt him with the press corps, which naturally assumed there must be some dirt there if he was being so dogged about keeping it under wraps. That undoubtedly colored some of their coverage, especially of the Swift Boat affair. Conversely, seeing those commendations from the same guys who were now calling him a liar and a coward would have deflected some of the press heat away from him and back toward the Swifties.

It's all very perplexing, and Kerry's explanation for his refusal is obviously bogus. It's a strange coda to a strange campaign.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BIG IDEAS....PART 1....Here's a question for you. I am going to choose a series of broad subjects and ask my readers what single thing they would like to see done about them. Today's subject is....civil rights.

You may interpret that broadly to mean race issues of any kind. So here is my question: if you could pass any single piece of federal legislation related to civil rights, what would it be? Think big! Assume we have a liberal president and big liberal majorities in Congress. Don't worry overmuch about the Supreme Court. The only real rule is that you only get to choose one thing.

What would it be?

UPDATE: Quick note: the subject is "civil rights," not "civil liberties." I'm thinking primarily of race issues, but you're welcome to suggest legislation dealing with other aspects of civil rights if you wish. I do intend to address feminist issues separately, though.

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By: Kevin Drum

PENSION PROBLEMS....The New York Times reports today that the failure of the United Airlines pension fund was perfectly predictable. In fact, the SEC knew all about it:

Loopholes in the federal pension law allowed United Airlines to treat its pension fund as solid for years, when in fact it was dangerously weakening, according to a new analysis by the agency that guarantees pensions. That analysis is scheduled to be presented at a Senate Finance Committee hearing today.

.... "We saw similar practices and events at Enron, but unfortunately, this time it's perfectly legal," said Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is chairman of the finance committee.

....The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation found that in 2002, when United was determining how much it had to contribute to its four plans, it calculated that the plans for its pilots and its mechanics each had more money than needed....Those numbers are on file with the Labor Department. But they do not square with the pension numbers United provided to the Securities and Exchange Commission. That agency requires companies to calculate pension values in a different way. At United, that method showed the four pension plans to be only 50 percent funded.

Anytime you see "Enron" and "perfectly legal" together in the same sentence, you just know that something is wrong, don't you?

As Grassley points out, it's not just airlines that are having pension fund problems. The rules regarding pension fund solvency today are about as rigorous as the rules regarding S&L solvency were in the 1980s. My guess is that the end result is going to be about the same too.

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By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL IN ALASKA....Oil production in Alaska is a microcosm of the peak oil phenomenon. Here's the Washington Post on drilling at Prudhoe Bay:

This vast field is ailing: Output has fallen by nearly 75 percent from its peak in 1987 and is expected to continue dropping.

...."You just hate to see [Prudhoe Bay production] winding down the way it is," said Vincent Leonard, a BP manager who has worked here since the late 1970s, when production began. "They told us years ago, 'Eventually you're going to hit this point where things are declining,' and they are."

...."It does feel like we're peddling hard and running out of options," said Maureen Johnson, a BP senior vice president in charge of Prudhoe Bay and nearby fields.

The engineers at Prudhoe are using loads of new technology to slow the decline, but that's all they're able to do: slow the decline. All the money in the world won't turn things around.

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June 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IRRITATION IS NOT ENOUGH....Kieran Healy on the human condition:

People can stay irritated their whole lives, in my experience, and not change anything much about their situation.

No, he isn't talking about the problems that Democrats have getting their message across to the oppressed proletariat, but he might as well be.

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By: Kevin Drum

TWILIGHT IN THE DESERT....Have you had your fill of peak oil yet? Are you thirsty for one last tidbit?

Sure you are! A month ago I mentioned that I had received a copy of Matt Simmons's Twilight in the Desert and would be reviewing it shortly. "Shortly" i.e., the June issue of the Monthly has now arrived, so here's the review.

As it happens, the review eventually morphed into less of a review per se and more of a review essay on the general subject of peak oil that happens to pay more than the usual attention to the subject of Simmons's book: namely, the future of Saudi Arabia's oil industry, which he thinks is not quite as bright as the Saudis claim. In fact, Simmons is downright gloomy. He thinks that Saudi Arabia's public pronouncements that they can increase their oil production for decades to come is mostly based on wishful thinking, and he further thinks that this is seriously bad news for the future of oil production. After all, if Saudi Arabia, home of the biggest and best oil fields in the world, is in trouble, the rest of the oil producing world must really be hurting.

Is he right? Go read and decide for yourself!

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By: Kevin Drum

REWARDING THE FORTUNATE....Mickey Kaus comments today on David Cay Johnston's New York Times story about low tax rates on the rich, but I think he misses the point. Here's Kaus on the skyrocketing incomes of the already rich:

What [Johnston] doesn't answer is the important question...namely how much richer would they have gotten if they hadn't gotten the tax cuts? ... When I looked at this question in the early 90s, the answer was pretty clear: the rich were growing richer due to changes in the underlying economy (e.g. greater rewards for skills) that affected their pretax income, not changes in the tax code that affected how much of that income they got to keep.

....But Johnston doesn't even try to give us the answer. ... He seems to assume we'll be so outraged that the "hyper-rich" are getting tax cuts at all that we won't ask if denying them the tax cuts would actually be enough to stop them from getting richer.

This is a red herring. Johnston understands perfectly well why the rich have done so well in recent years:

The hyper-rich have emerged in the last three decades as the biggest winners in a remarkable transformation of the American economy characterized by, among other things, the creation of a more global marketplace, new technology and investment spurred partly by tax cuts. The stock market soared; so did pay in the highest ranks of business.

I think Kaus and Johnston are both correct: a big part of the reason the rich have gotten richer since 1980 is related to fundamental changes in society. CEO's aren't being paid five times what they were paid in the 60s because they're more talented than CEOs of the 60s, they're being paid more because of the happy chance that they've come of age in a time and place that rewards run-of-the-mill CEOs in bizarrely extraordinary ways.

But if that's the case, here's the real question: given that society has transformed in ways that happen to enormously benefit the rich already, why would you further reward them for their good fortune by slashing their tax rates? Here's what Republicans have done for the mega-rich donor class over the past quarter century:

It's not a question of whether "denying them the tax cuts would actually be enough to stop them from getting richer," it's a question of why Republicans are deliberately building a tax code that converts merely skyrocketing income growth among the rich into mind-bogglingly astronomical growth. I think all of us, Mickey included, know the answer to that.

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By: Kevin Drum

THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULED ENTERTAINMENT....The Moose predicts trouble:

What does a increasingly lame duck do when he is cornered? He attacks. The M.O. of this Administration is to never retreat, even when the situation seems to dictate compromise and accommodation.

Beginning this week expect the Bushies to launch a fierce counter-offensive against the Democratic insurgents to regain control over the capital. They will move a form of social security privatization through the the Senate and House. More right wing judicial nominations will be offered. A showdown is imminent over one or more Supreme Court vacancies.

I agree. George Bush's only instinct is to attack, and I suspect he hated the filibuster compromise ginned up by Senate moderates a couple of weeks ago. His upcoming group of judicial nominations will probably be deliberately engineered to include at least one nominee so wretched as to force a showdown on the agreement and hopefully shatter it. He doesn't want compromise and comity, he wants blood in the water.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUICK! EVERYONE SWITCH SIDES!....Live by the sword, die by the sword. The Supreme Court ruled today that the constitution's interstate commerce clause gives the federal government the right to regulate medical marijuana use. The usual reactionary suspects dissented.

I now eagerly await cries from liberals claiming that Rehnquist and Thomas are right this time: the feds shouldn't have the right to regulate commerce if the states say otherwise. Conservatives will then chime in in support of Stevens & Company's broad view that the federal government is supreme as long as anything anywhere crosses state lines.

And thus the week begins....

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By: Kevin Drum

BOOKS WE HATE BEG TO DIFFER WITH....Just for the hell of it, here's a reply to the Human Events list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries": a semi-consensus Top Ten collection of 19th and 20th century books that Political Animal readers believe have been harmful to the cause of human progress. I've created two rules by fiat:

  • The time period is 1800-1975. The starting date is so we're playing by the same rules as the Human Events folks, and the ending date is because I think it's impossible to judge the cultural importance of a book in less than 30 years or so.

  • No books by Nazis or communists. These are already well represented on the Human Events list, and I just figured it would be more fun to try to come up with ten completely different books.

Yes, these rules are somewhat arbitrary. Life is like that sometimes.

Anyway, here's the draft list along with a brief comment about each selection. It's in chronological order by date of publication. Warning: because I'm an uneducated boor, I've personally read only one of the books on this list. I'm mostly just cribbing from previous comment threads, emails, and various Googled descriptions of the books in question. Feel free to complain or nominate other worthy titles in comments.

  1. Social Statics, 1851, by Herbert Spencer

    Spencer taught that the functions of the state should be limited to internal police and foreign protection no public education, no limitation of hours on labor, no welfare legislation. Spencer later coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" and argued that it applied not just to Darwinian selection of biological organisms, but to cultures and societies as well. This gave rise to a trend in social theory called "Social Darwinism," which became popular in the United States as a justification for the extreme laissez faire policies of the Gilded Age and the robber baron era. See also A Message to Garcia, a pamphlet that sold over 40 million copies during the opening decades of the 20th century.

  2. Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, 1853, by Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau

    An early and influential book that promoted "scientific racism," arguing that the rise and fall of civilizations was in direct proportion to the purity of "Caucasian blood" they contained. It was a precursor to both the eugenics movement and Nazi theories of Aryan superiority, and is popular to this day with white supremacists and other neanderthal types.

  3. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, 1905, by the Russian secret police

    Protocols was a forgery that purported to demonstrate that a secret cabal of Jews was plotting to take over the world. Henry Ford famously used it to attack Jews and Communists, and Adolf Hitler later used the Protocols to help justify his attempt to exterminate Jews during World War II. It remains popular in the Arab world to this day.

  4. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, 1905, by Thomas Dixon and Arthur I. Keller

    Although Clansman itself was not widely read, it formed the basis of Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's famous 1915 film that's credited with rekindling interest in the Ku Klux Klan after it had largely died out in the late 19th century. The film depicts a post-Civil War history in which a heroic Ku Klux Klan saved the South from "arrogant, lustful, villainous" negroes who had taken over state legislatures and instigated a reign of terror against white women. Woodrow Wilson commented upon seeing the film that "it is all so terribly true."

  5. The Road to Serfdom, 1944, by Friedrich Hayek

    Conservative/libertarian bible in which Hayek makes the case that government interventions in the market, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably lead to further and further interventions and, finally, to totalitarianism. Serfdom is widely used by libertarians and conservatives as a damning argument against social welfare programs of all sorts.

  6. Witness, 1952, by Whittaker Chambers

    Perhaps the best known of a genre of post-World War II memoirs that set the tone for the paranoid, McCarthyite anti-communism of the 50s and 60s. Helped justify the worst excesses of HUAC and the Hollywood witch hunts.

  7. Atlas Shrugged, 1957, by Ayn Rand

    Absurd and interminable tale of a near future in which men of ability finally grow tired of the relentless tide of regulation imposed by collectivist/socialist do gooders. In response, they withdraw from the world and set up a libertarian community hidden in the Rocky Mountains. When society finally collapses without them, they come out of hiding and impose a new libertarian paradise on the world.

    It is perhaps true that Atlas Shrugged appeals mostly to impressionable teenagers who quickly grow out of it. However, it's equally true that rather a lot of these teenagers keep their impressions with them as they grow up, even if they subsequently become embarrassed to admit where their predilections originated. Fed chairman Alan Greenspan is perhaps the best known Rand acolyte living today.

  8. Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, by Milton Friedman

    Influential exposition of the doctrine of unfettered capitalism, which gained strength during the Reagan adminstration and has now become (in a repeat of history) the guiding philosophy of the modern Republican party. Two generations of conservatives have taken to heart Friedman's lesson that no interference with free market capitalism should be tolerated in a free society.

  9. Milestones, 1964, by Sayyid Qutb

    After ten years of incarceration and torture in Egyptian prisons, Qutb published his best known work, Milestones, a call for a renewed Islamic militancy that has "inspired some of the most extreme expressions of Islamic revivalism," including the radical terrorist group Islamic Jihad. In The Age of Sacred Terror, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write that "Qutb, for better or for worse, is the Islamic world's answer to Solzhenitsyn, Sartre, and Havel, and he easily ranks with all of them in influence. It was Sayyid Qutb who fused together the core elements of modern Islamism."

  10. The Late Great Planet Earth, 1970, By Hal Lindsey

    Massive bestseller of the 70s and beyond that jumpstarted the modern resurgence of pre-millennial dispensationalism among evangelical Christians. As it happens, the world has not ended as Lindsey predicted, but this has seemingly done nothing to dim his popularity. LGPE is the literary forebear of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind series, a story of the apocalypse that has reportedly sold more than 50 million copies since the first volume was released in 1995 and has spawned a virtual empire of related doomsday spinoffs.

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June 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CONSERVATIVE BOOKS....Here's a weird question. It requires me to expose some serious ignorance on my part, but what the hell. Here goes.

A few days ago I mocked the Human Events lists of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries," which included such works as Dewey on education, Friedan on feminism, Kinsey on sex, and Keynes on economics. I wanted to create a competing list of my own, but I just don't have the historical chops to do it, so I figured that maybe my commenters would provide some good raw material.

As it turns out, though, not really. Atlas Shrugged? I agree that it's eminently mockable, but let's face it: has this book really had that much influence on anyone who doesn't still use Clearasil pads? I don't think so.

The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon? Another worthy choice, but it was written in 1905, long after the Klan and Jim Crow had taken over the South. It's hard to argue that it was really very influential.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? An excellent choice! We have a winner.

But that's only one. We need nine more. Even if you toss in the usual Communist and Nazi suspects, which were already on the Human Events list, we're still short by four or five books if we want to create our own Top Ten.

Not to be flip about it, but it makes me wonder if SqueakyRat is right:

In trying to come up with a left-wing equivalent to the Human Events list, I've come to realize that the right has basically not influenced public opinion via books at all....

Is our failure to come up with a list due to the fact that we don't have a lot of historians commenting here? Maybe, but Ralph Luker, who is an historian, tried to come up with a list and failed pretty miserably too. (Any list that has to include Ann Coulter and her ilk in order to gin up ten titles obviously doesn't have much energy behind it.) His second try is better, particularly the inclusion of Spencer, but his titles are very clearly not as well known as the Human Events books.

It's kinda weird. Where are the really famous and genuinely influential books of the past 200 years that liberals dislike as much as conservatives dislike Keynes and Kinsey? Not miscellaneous Regnery titles of the past couple of decades, but books published (at least) prior to 1970 that have had a wide impact on the course of public opinion. If they don't exist, why? I'm mystified.

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PROGRESSIVE TAXATION....This won't come as any surprise to regular readers, but since the New York Times made a nice graphic about it for us, here it is again: federal tax rates by income level.

Americans cling to a myth assiduously promoted by the right that America has a progressive tax system that punishes the wealthy. It doesn't. Once you get above the level of the working poor, actual federal tax rates are virtually flat, ranging from 14% to 21%. At the high end it's even worse: a middle class pipefitter making $50,000 a year pays the same tax rate as Jack Welch. A bank manager making $75,000 pays more.

Middle class Americans are being played for suckers by the Republican party, and if Democrats had any brains they'd be pounding on this day and night. If someone could get the point across to them, the vast majority of Americans would probably be shocked to realize that the Republican party has slowly but surely dismanted the progressive tax system in this country.

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By: Kevin Drum

EDUCATION IN LOS ANGELES....The LA Times dedicated its Sunday Opinion section to education today. Here's what I learned:

  • Karin Klein: Universal preschool is a stupid idea.

  • Naomi Schaefer Riley: The back office operations of most public school districts are woefully inefficient and don't operate like profit-making enterprises.

  • W. Norton Grubb: Finland, a homogeneous country of 5 million with a strong social welfare system, seems to have pretty smart kids.

  • Catherine Seipp: LA parents are idiots, especially well-off liberal ones.

And, finally, one lonely little piece that actually suggests a way in which education might be made better:

  • Wendy Kopp: If we insist on high standards, both research and experience show that low-income parents will respond.

Why couldn't this have been done the other way around? How about four pieces focused on ways in which education could be improved, leavened with one piece about problems? Maybe I'm being too earnest about the whole thing, but what's the point of an op-ed section that spends 80% of its energy whining without really proposing much in the way of interesting solutions?

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June 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JOURNOS AND BLOGS....Only 30% of journalists covering a political conference know what a blog is? Can that really be true?

UPDATE: I'm an idiot. As Karl points out in comments, the linked post suggests that 30% don't know what a blog is. That actually sounds pretty reasonable.

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CITY MICE AND SUBURBAN MICE....Atrios, after wading into the suburbs vs. cities argument, wonders why suburbs are all so....suburby:

What puzzles me is the fact that there are relatively minor changes to how we construct our suburbs which would both allow some people (not everyone probably) to reduce their degree of auto dependency while simultaneously adding a bit of nearby "small townness" for the rest of the nearby residents. One can transform an absolutely tiny piece of land into something more resembling a town build a few blocks of mixed residential/commercial development with street level shops without fundamentally transforming the way most people live....Many of the early suburbs already have this (and many such earlier suburbs tend to be incredibly pricey, and not just because of their proximity to the urban core) pattern of development, but it's rarely replicated these days.

Good question. Why are suburbs so relentlessly chopped up via single-use zoning into antiseptic checkerboards that separate living from shopping from work?

I don't think it's the fault of developers. After all, if you could build a shopping center on a piece of land, and then in addition build some apartments (or co-ops) on top of the shops and maybe some commercial office space as well, that would be a gold mine, wouldn't it? Landowners would love it.

Is it the fault of city councils? That doesn't really make sense either. It's common knowledge that residential developments are money sinks, using up way more in services than they pay in tax dollars. That's why most cities are so hellbent on letting commercial developers build anything they want. Without them, most cities would go broke.

That pretty much leaves one option: residents of suburbs themselves don't like the idea of mixed-use development and they let their planning boards know it in no uncertain terms. What's more, since developers don't seem to be fighting residents very hard about this, I have to assume they're skeptical that they could rent out all the space. If they really thought they could make a buck off developments like this, they'd be bribing city councilmen left and right.

In other words, I suspect that just because people visit Downtown Disney on their vacations, it doesn't mean they're pining away for small town life. They aren't pining away for roller coasters in their backyards, either. In the end, some people like cities and some people like suburbs, and it's just a matter of taste. The people who like cities whine about gentrification and white flight, and the people who like suburbs whine about anything that increases noise or traffic congestion. Both sides seem pretty dedicated to keeping their own patches of land just the way they are.

Which is too bad, because those mixed-use "community oriented" developments that Atrios is talking about always seem sort of cool to me. I must be in a pretty tiny minority, though, because most people seem to loathe either suburbs or cities and fight to the death against any encroachment from whichever living pattern they hate. I have a feeling the reason those mixed use communities don't exist is because instead of being the best of both worlds, most people think of them as the worst of both.

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ETYMOLOGY QUESTION....Does anyone know the origin of the phrase "mouth breather," in the sense of "clueless troglodyte"? None of my reference books says anything about it, ten seconds on Google hasn't produced an answer, and it doesn't really seem to make sense. What's the deal?

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PEAK OIL....CODA....One final word about peak oil. During my series last week I never reproduced an actual chart of peak oil, so here's one now. The chart below is from former oil company executive Colin Campbell, and his method of constructing it is simple: he estimates oil production from every possible source, including future production from deepwater and polar oil, and adds them all up. The result is his prediction that global oil production will peak in about 2007 and then start declining.

Now, I happen to think Campbell is overly pessimistic, but that's not really why I reproduced his chart. Instead, take a look at oil consumption from 1979 to 1982, after the Iranian revolution caused crude oil prices to double. As you can see, world oil consumption dropped by about 15%.

There are two ways you can interpret this 15% decline:

  • Market forces work! Prices went up, consumption went down, and the world didn't end. It is possible to reduce oil consumption after all.

  • Holy cow! Sure, oil consumption went down, but it took the longest and deepest recession since World War II to accomplish it.

Both of these interpretations are correct. High prices do cause consumption to decrease, and if prices spike again consumption will decrease just as it did in 1979. If consumption were cut 15% today, it would reduce our oil use by about 13 million barrels per day, restoring our spare capacity to normal levels and probably putting off peak oil until 2020 or 2030. This would go a long way toward giving us the time we need to work on alternatives.

On the other hand, it would be nice if we could figure out a way to accomplish this without a deep and painful worldwide recession. (Or maybe a series of them.) That's the point of supporting a serious energy policy: in return for some moderate pain today it substantially reduces the likelihood of massive pain in the future.

This is why I think peak oil is a serious problem: at some point consumption has to drop, and I'd rather not see it forced on us by economic upheaval.

However, it's also why I'm not a hyper-alarmist: as bad as the 1980-82 recession was, it wasn't the end of civilization as we know it. If that's what it takes to get us to reduce oil consumption and get serious about developing alternative energy sources, we'll live through it. And I have little doubt that given 20 or 30 years of motivated effort, we will develop alternatives.

An awful lot of peak oil theorists seem skeptical that market forces have any effect at all, and as a result they predict worldwide calamity as soon as production peaks. History doesn't back that up. Eventually, high prices will cause consumption to drop and will spur both new exploration and development of new energy technologies. If we twiddle our thumbs and wait for a recession to force this to happen, that's not a future to look forward to. But it's not a future of bicycles and truck farms either.

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JUST A COINCIDENCE, I'M SURE....It's Friday night. Must be time to release some bad news!

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By: Kevin Drum

BULLETIN: U.S. INTEL MISUSED....Knight Ridder, your best source for non-bullshit coverage of U.S. intelligence activities, informs us that Abu Musab al Zarqawi didn't visit Syria after all, despite loud reports to the contrary two weeks ago:

Three officials who said that the reports of Zarqawi's travels were apparently bogus spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified and because discussing the mistaken report could embarrass the White House and trigger retaliation against them.

....One of the U.S. officials said the initial report was based on a single human source, who has since changed his story significantly. Another official said the source and his information were quickly dismissed as unreliable by intelligence officials but caught the attention of some political appointees.

Golly. Political appointees publicized unreliable intel for its PR value? I hope someone tells the president about this.

Kevin Drum 9:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BIG IDEAS....As you may have heard elsewhere, Rick Perlstein has a new pamphlet out called "The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo," currently available from Prickly Paradigm Press (or from Amazon). In it, he argues that Democrats need to stop their relentless effort to fine tune every campaign in an effort to attract swing voters (a stock ticker approach), and instead pick some big ideas and stick with them (a superjumbo approach). As my readers know, I'm a big fan of his biography of Barry Goldwater, Before the Storm, so I invited him to post an excerpt on the blog in order to give us a taste of what he has to say.

Here it is. I've edited it lightly to add first names to some of the people he quotes.

"The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo," by Rick Perlstein.

The Congressional losses of 1994 touched Bill Clinton's deepest anxieties, and made him willing to weaken the institution that made him, for personal survival. Dick Morris did it the way a corporate raider would. By showing indifference to any stakeholder but the swing voter, he gladly risked the loyalty of those who had been willing to stick with the institution through thick and thin. "The fact that it would anger Democrats was not a drawback but a bonus," George Stephanopoulos recalls of Morris's strategy just as angering long-term stakeholders is a bonus for a corporate manager looking to prove to Wall Street his macho bona fides. It gives the stock a goose. The only risk being, of course, the long-term health of the institution.

Political scientists, having established that party identification is the best predictor of voting behavior, need to study how many party identifiers the Democrats lost specifically as a result of this kind of thinking. They need to measure the opportunity cost of doing what Dick Morris said needed to be done to win the 1996 election and the opportunity cost of the Morris-like habits that currently saturate Bill Clinton's party. Now that Dick Morris has been disgraced, it's easy to laugh at him. But we all know what happens to those who laugh imperiously in parables. He lost the battle. But did his legacy of stock-ticker thinking also lose Democrats the war?

Some of the evidence is close at hand. It's hard to identify with a party when you don't know what it stands for or how it differs from its opponent. According to exit polls taken during the 2002 congressional elections, only 34 percent of voters thought the two parties differed on the one issue the Democratic leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle made the core of the congressional campaigns: providing prescription drugs under Medicare. Meanwhile, on another issue of widespread voter concern the economy, encompassing both the recent corporate scandals and mounting unemployment the leadership offered no coherent ideas at all. So it was that voters who rated the economy their most important issue voted Republican in House elections 52 percent to 48 percent at a time when the president presiding over the faltering economy was a Republican.

I have noted that many voters no longer remember the Democratic Party's reputation as the institutional embodiment of the worst excesses of the 1960s. But there's something else they don't remember: that the Democrats were once the clear and obvious institutional embodiment of their own economic interests.

How do we know this? John Judis and Ruy Teixeira make a fascinating observation about the increasing number of voters who refuse to identify with a party: "When the new independent vote is broken down, it reveals a trend towards the Democrats in the 1990s and a clear and substantial Democratic partisan advantage. . . . once these independents are assigned the party they are closer to, Democrats enjoy a 13 percent advantage over Republicans." They add that among the 15 most independent-rich states, ten belong to the Democrats big ones like Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia. Two of them swing. The other three are tiny.

Here's a riddle: what is a swing voter? More and more, it is an American who thinks like a Democrat but refuses to identify as one.

...If it is true that party identification which, as Stan Greenberg argues, is a form of social identity that endures over the long term is the best predictor of voter behavior, isn't getting this selfsame public to identify with the Democratic Party much, much more than half the solution?

So how to do it? Democrats must stop looking leaderless, fumbling, unfocused, disorganized, and confused. They must give voters something to identify with. They must no longer judge themselves sophisticated when they cancel all the old long-term dreams. They need new long-term dreams.

Ronald Reagan used to say that there are no easy answers but there are simple answers. The answer to this problem is simple, and not easy. The Democrats need to make commitments, or a network of commitments, that do not waver from election to election. If you are trying to build an institution that commands respect and power unto generations that can reproduce itself wise superjumbo projects have intrinsic value, whatever their precise content, whether they end up failing or succeeding. The investments pay off, not in immediate profit, but in the equity that comes from sweat. Because they require patience, they build fortitude. Because they require their stakeholders to take risks, they inspire an evangelical commitment to redeeming the risk. Even if they don't succeed, they leave something behind: an institutional infrastructure, a rich network of stakeholders at multiple levels of commitment and intensity an institutional soul.

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DARFUR REVISITED....Suzanne Nossel responds today to my pessimistic appraisal of intervention in Darfur. There are more options than U.S. boots on the ground, she says:

The most obvious short-term solution is a hefty NATO backstop to an AU force, likely going beyond the logistics, transport and training they are providing today to include actual troops in country (over the long-term, we ought to be thinking about measures like those outlined here, including a long-term investment in developing capable military leadership for a standing AU force).

....A third option is stepped up UN peacekeeping. The UNSC voted to establish a 10,000 person strong peacekeeping mission in Sudan back in March, but the peacekeepers have only just begun to deploy.

My immediate response is that (a) NATO seems unlikely to agree to any serious intervention and (b) I suspect UN troops aren't really of any use until there's some peace to keep.

But in a way, that's neither here nor there. I agree that there are options in Darfur other than landing a few divisions of U.S. troops, and I support them even if I'm skeptical that they'll do much good. Rather, my point is a simpler one: if you're serious about stopping genocide, I think you have to face the fact that armed combat troops not "monitors" or "peacekeepers" are needed to do the job. I'd like to see more people taking a firm stand on whether they support this, both in Darfur and elsewhere, instead of tiptoeing around the subject and pretending that maybe the AU or the UN is up to the task. For now, they aren't.

So: should we be prepared to send troops or not? Should we be pressing NATO to send troops or not? And remember that Darfur isn't the end of the story in Africa. Congo, anyone?

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LEBANON UPDATE....Abu Aardvark, after noting the "seemingly endless parade of death and suffering for Arab journalists," muses about how the Cedar Revolution is playing out in Lebanon:

The political process seems to be reverting back to old habits, with the elections playing out according to the iron logic of the confessionally-structured electoral system. The "cedar revolutionaries" are disappointed, voter turnout was exceedingly low, the old warlords like Jumblatt are playing to form and building tactical alliances, and provocateurs (Syrian and otherwise) are keeping everyone on knife's edge. As much as I may have wanted the optimists to be right that Lebanon post-Hariri, post-Syria was radically new I fear the pessimists may have been more on target. We'll see.

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NOTES FROM THE FRONT....Shorter Dana Rohrabacher: As long as they target people I don't like, terrorist groups are OK with me.

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PEAK OIL WRAPUP....For future reference, here's a collection of links to the entire set of recent peak oil posts:

  • Part 1: Oil production in the non-OPEC world is likely to peak within a few years and then begin an irreversible decline.

  • Part 2: Oil peaking is caused by unavoidable geologic factors. It happens to all oil fields and can't be stopped just by spending more money.

  • Part 3: There isn't much oil left elsewhere in the world to make up for the upcoming decline in non-OPEC supplies. A global peak, followed by a steady decline in production, is likely within the next ten years.

  • Part 4: As bad as this is, there's something even worse that's happened already: the world has run out of spare pumping capacity. The result is likely to be steadily rising prices and frequent oil shocks, leading to increasing global instability and a turbulent economy held permanent hostage to terrorists, unstable dictatorships, resource wars, and natural disasters.

  • Part 5: There are things we can do to manage the approaching oil peak, but we need start now and we need to address both supply and consumption.

  • Coda: A final word on why peak oil is serious, but not the end of civilization.

Kevin Drum 12:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PEAK OIL....PART 5....The coming peak in oil production, which is likely to lead to permanently expensive oil and increasingly frequent oil shocks, isn't the end of civilization as we know it. Honest. But it is likely to be fairly painful. What can we do about it?

To begin with, we need to be careful not to conflate "oil policy" with "energy policy." They're two different things. Nuclear energy, for example, has good points (no global warming) and bad points (Three Mile Island), but in the near term it's not a replacement for oil. It's a way of generating electricity, and as such it's mostly a replacement for coal and natural gas, the two things that currently produce most of our electrical power.

Oil, on the other hand, is mostly used in two other sectors: transportation (cars, trucks, and planes) and industry (for example, as lubricants and chemical feedstock). Any plan to deal with future oil shocks has to focus on those two areas. What's more, since (a) transportation is by far the biggest consumer of oil and (b) there aren't very many good substitutes for industrial use of oil, our focus needs to be pretty squarely on transportation.

In the short term, our options for dealing with a future of expensive and unstable oil supplies are limited. One thing we can do, and for which George Bush deserves credit, is to continue filling up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, something he's gotten some flak for recently in the face of rising gasoline prices. But he's right to ignore the critics: higher prices are not an emergency, and that's what the SPR is for. If terrorists manage to blow up Ras Tanura and put it out of commission for a few months, we'll all be happy the SPR is topped up.

The medium and long term are different stories, though, and this is where we can make a real difference. Serious solutions take years or decades to implement, though, which means the time to start working on them is now.

One thing for which George Bush decidedly doesn't deserve any credit is his energy plan, which does almost nothing to address our future oil problems. It's laughably unserious, little more than a transparent payoff to his campaign contributors that's derided by practically everyone on both the right and the left. We can do better.

Any sensible oil plan has to be built on four fundamental pillars. This is a subject that would need a five-part series of its own to do it justice, but here's the basic outline:

  1. Increased production. This is the part that liberals hate, but there's no way around it. Like it or not, our economy really does depend on oil and there are no immediate substitutes. We're just not going to become a nation of bicycle riders and small farmers either now or in the future.

    Increasing production mainly means investing more in "frontier oil" and in the U.S. drilling in ANWR. As Jared Diamond points out in Collapse, it's perfectly possible to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive ways, and the fact is that Prudhoe Bay has been relatively trouble free for such a large-scale operation. ANWR is unlikely to be any more damaging to the environment than Prudhoe if it's done right, and it deserves to be on the table as part of a comprehensive energy deal. On a related note, building more refineries is probably going to be part of the deal too.

  2. Conservation. This is the part that conservatives hate. Getting people to use less oil means getting them to drive less, and that means gas taxes and carbon taxes. It also means mass transit, as well as things like government programs to buy up old gas guzzlers. These are going to be hard pills to swallow for anti-tax conservatives, but it's not possible to address our oil problem solely on the supply side. We have to reduce demand as well.

  3. Increased efficiency. There's no question that cars can be made considerably more efficient than they are today. HybridCenter.org has details about hybrid cars, but non-hybrid cars have lots of room for improvement too. Raising CAFE gas mileage standards and bringing SUVs under the CAFE umbrella would go a long way toward making cars more efficient, but this will require conservatives to get over their aversion to industry regulation and it will require liberals to get buy-in from auto unions, which have opposed higher CAFE standards in the past.

  4. Alternative fuels. Biofuels look promising as partial replacements for oil (see "Independence Way" from last July's Monthly for more details), and some additional federal support could be helpful here. Natural gas is a clean alternative to oil, although it's also a fossil fuel and has its own problems. (For starters, no one seems to want an LNG port in their neighborhood, and that's what it's going to take to significantly increase our use of gas.)

    In the longer term, hydrogen fuel cells are promising although it's worth keeping in mind that fuel cells are storage devices, not power sources. Their energy has to come from electrical plants, and realistically that means more power generation from both nuclear and coal along with increased use of clean coal technology and carbon sequestration. That's expensive stuff, but probably worth it. No matter what we do, we have to get used to the idea that energy is going to be a lot more expensive in the future than it is today.

None of these four things will solve our oil problem by itself, but each one can solve a part of it. Put them all together and you have a plan that could start to have a serious effect within 5-10 years. But it will take some compromise on all sides. I'm not a fan of drilling in ANWR, but if it were part of a larger deal that included things like higher CAFE standards, an incremental gas tax, and serious support for alternative fuel research, I'd swallow hard and support it.

There's more, of course, including the larger non-oil energy picture as well as the environmental impact of all this stuff, with global warming at the top of the list. Maybe I'll address those later. In the meantime, comments are open.

If you want to read more about peak oil, here are a few places to go:

Here are a couple of blogs that track peak oil news daily:

For what it's worth, there are some hyper-alarmist sites out there as well (the code phrases to watch out for are things like "end of civilization" and "massive die-offs"). I'd avoid them. Peak oil is a serious problem, but the free market really will work the way economists say it does, by reducing demand and spurring innovation as prices rise. If we combine that with some common sense planning for the future, we can go a long way toward making this problem manageable. Both our economy and our national security depend on it.

One final word is here.

Kevin Drum 12:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DARFUR AGAIN....Over at Democracy Arsenal, Derek Chollet suggests that "Good Policy is Good Politics," but it's hard to see why. The subject is the genocide in Darfur, and he quotes the following from a Zogby poll:

Concerning NATO's role an idea we have championed here 80% support creating a no-fly zone over Darfur, and 76% support NATO logistical and troop support for an expanded African peacekeeping force. However, support falls quickly away at the prospect of U.S. military action; just 38% of likely voters think the U.S. should send troops under its own flag (which is not surprising).

Let's break this down. For starters, only 18% of the poll's respondents are even aware Darfur exists. The other 82% are either "slightly aware" of Darfur or not even that and I'd bet my last nickel that "slightly" is just a face-saving version of "I couldn't tell you which continent Darfur is on if you paid me." So I'd take this whole poll with a large shaker of salt.

As for the rest, I'm gratified to see 80% support for a no-fly zone. I support that too. But I'm more interested in the anemic 38% support for using U.S. troops, because I don't see any way to stop the genocide without them (see here for details.) After all the scorn we lefties have (rightfully) heaped on Bush & Company for their delusion that Iraq would be a cakewalk, the last thing we need is yet more rosy optimism about how we can fix up Darfur with a bit of loose change and some logistical support for the African Union. The odds of that working are infinitesimal.

I'm willing to support half measures like the Darfur Accountability Act because half measures are better than nothing. But I'd like to see more people on both left and right face up to facts: if you consider yourself serious about stopping the genocide in Darfur, then you should be willing to support a serious commitment of combat troops and all that that implies for a period likely to last years. Are you?

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BUSINESS NEWS....Here's how the Associated Press reported today's batch of economic news:

Orders to U.S. factories advanced by 0.9 percent in April, the fastest clip in five months, while worker productivity at the start of the year was better than originally thought and the nation's retailers enjoyed strong sales despite a cold spring.

But all the economic news released Thursday wasn't good. Labor costs, a key factor influencing inflation rates, rose sharply over the past six months.

Factory orders up? Good news! Productivity up? Good news! Strong retail sales? Good news!

Workers getting paid more? Ouch. Not so good. Can't have that, can we?

This is standard business reporting, by the way. Higher labor costs are inevitably reported as "troubling" or "worrisome," which sort of makes you wonder what these business reporters think the point of a strong economy is. Higher CEO pay?

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JEERING THE EU....Max Boot writes today about the rejection of the new European constitution by France and the Netherlands:

It's almost enough to make a confirmed Euro-skeptic like me feel sorry for the bureaucrats in Brussels. "Why does everyone hate us?" they must be asking over their croissants and lattes. "Haven't we delivered real benefits for the people of Europe?"

This is pretty typical of conservative commentary, which has been almost comically triumphant about the recent pair of No votes. I swear, you'd think it was VE Day in winger land.

I wouldn't mind so much if this was based on substantive dislike of the constitution, but that really doesn't seem to be the driving force here. Rather, the right primarily seems cock-a-hoop over something that's little more than childish: the prospect of Jacques Chirac and his hated squads of "elitists" and "unelected bureaucrats" getting a black eye. The fact that an awful lot of the no votes were driven by anger at things favored by conservatives admission for Turkey, a stronger European military commitment, open markets, free movement of labor doesn't really seem to have occurred to them.

The no vote doesn't really seem like much of a crisis to me, but it doesn't seem like much of a victory for conservatives either. They should be careful what they wish for.

UPDATE: David Adesnik agrees. Or maybe not. I'm not sure. In any case, he thinks that pundits around the world are simply reading into these elections whatever it is they wanted to believe in the first place. That sounds about right to me.

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DEEP THROAT REVEALED....In Thursday's Washington Post, Bob Woodward tells the whole story of how he came to know Mark "Deep Throat" Felt. It's actually quite fascinating.

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DEEP THOUGHT....Yes, the Human Events list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" is amusing, but it's the honorable mentions that are just moonbat crazy. Check it out.

But I remain unsatisfied. I want names. In particular, I want to know who voted for The Origin of Species, and I also want to know the name of the nitwit listmaker who was too scientifically illiterate to get the title right. Fess up, guys.

In comments, I invite my readers to make up their own list. I'll start with Arthur Laffer's napkin, since that, rather than actual books, seems to be what passes for scholarly analysis in conservative circles these days.

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PEAK OIL....PART 4....When I last left you hanging, I had spent a few thousand words trying to convince you of several things. First, that the daily rate of oil production in the non-OPEC world will peak within a few years and then begin an irreversible decline. Second, that this is the result of geology and can't really be stopped. And third, that there isn't much oil left elsewhere in the world to make up for this. As a result, global oil production will probably hit a peak around 2015 and then begin a long, slow decline. That date is just my own guess, of course: other analysts provide estimates for the production peak ranging from 2005 to 2035 or beyond.

Does the precise date of peak oil really matter? To some extent, of course it does: if production has already peaked, the world economy is in big trouble and there's no time to prepare for it. If it peaks in 30 years, there are plenty of things we can do in the meantime. Even ten years is better than nothing.

But in another sense it doesn't, because something has already happened that's equally important: the world has run out of spare pumping capacity. That's the subject of this post, but before I dive into it I want to take a brief detour and investigate some decidedly non-mainstream oil economics. Don't worry: it will all make sense before I'm done.

Most economists believe that the price of oil has only a moderate effect on the world economy, and as near as I can tell this is true. But it's a different story if you take a look at changes in the price of oil. The chart on the right, courtesy of GlobalSecurity.org, plots both oil prices (in constant 2000 dollars) and economic growth over the past 35 years. I've extended it to 2005, and you'll see that over that time there have been four periods in which oil prices have spiked suddenly (i.e., risen more than 50% in less than 18 months): 1973, 1979-81, 1989-90, and 1999-2000.

There have also been four periods of recession during that time: 1974-75, 1980-82 (a double dip), 1991, and 2001. This can't be written off as a coincidence. Oil shocks don't necessarily cause recessions, but they pretty clearly play a role, either in touching them off or in adding fuel to the fire. The conclusion from this data is pretty obvious: although the world economy can chug along reasonably well with either high oil prices or low oil prices, it grinds to a halt when oil prices spike up suddenly, producing widespread recession and stubbornly high unemployment rates. For those thrown out of work, this is bad news indeed.

So what causes oil prices to spike upward?

Supply and demand, of course. In particular, the first three oil shocks were caused by sudden drops in supply: the OPEC embargo caused the first oil shock, the Iranian revolution caused the second, and the Gulf War caused the third.

All three could have been worse than they were. The 1973 embargo was short lived and Iran actively worked to stabilize oil prices by increasing its production. In 1979, when Iranian production plummeted during their revolution, Saudi Arabia stepped in and increased production. In 1990, when Iraqi and Kuwaiti production fell, Saudi Arabia stepped in again and maxed out their production levels. Without those interventions, especially Saudi Arabia's, these shocks would have been even more devastating than they were.

But it's not only during oil shocks that Saudi Arabia's enormous production capability has come in handy. In fact, ever since 1980 Saudi Arabia has used its spare capacity on a routine basis to smooth out bumps in global oil supply, keeping the world economy on a relatively even keel. For a quarter of a century, Saudi Arabia has been the key swing producer on the world oil stage.

Unfortunately, the days of Saudi intervention are over. Current world demand for oil is about 84 million barrels per day, and current world production capacity is about....84 million barrels per day. As Amy Myers Jaffe points out, OPEC's spare capacity and thus the world's has dropped nearly to zero in the past few years. Everyone is pumping full out.

This is why prices are increasing now even though there's been no oil shock. It's not because of a sudden disruption, it's because demand is now bumping up against supply. What's more, this is a permanent condition: new capacity takes years to develop, so even in the best case supply will only barely keep up with future growth in demand. There's not much margin for error.

In the short term, this doesn't mean much: prices will most likely continue to bounce around based on inventory levels and seasonal/regional demand. In the longer term, however, prices are likely to rise steadily and become far more sensitive to supply problems. With Saudi Arabia now pumping at very close to its maximum capacity, even a moderate oil shock somewhere in the world will make $50 per barrel oil seem like a bargain.

This potential for instability is far more dangerous than mere expensive oil. The economy can adjust to high oil prices, and to the extent that high prices reduce consumption and spur innovation, they can even be positively beneficial. But as we saw above, wildly fluctuating oil prices are a different, and far more damaging, story. What's worse, future oil shocks are likely to be fairly frequent since it will take only a small disruption to remove a few million barrels a day from the world market. Venezuela's production dropped by 2 million bpd for a few months in 2003 just because their oil workers went on strike, for example. With Saudi Arabia already pumping at capacity, we can't expect them to bail us out when stuff like this happens in the future.

So that's the predicament we're in. Since supply disruptions are a predictable part of the oil business, and there's no one left to make up for future shortfalls, the result is likely to be oil that's at $50 a barrel one day and $200 a barrel the next bringing recession and unemployment in its wake. We'd all like to see the world consume less oil, I think, but reducing consumption via frequent and nasty global recessions is not what any of us had in mind.

This is what peak oil has brought us to. The actual peak may happen this year or it may not happen for a couple of decades, but just the fact that we're close means that we've already hit the point in the curve where spare capacity is a luxury of the past. The result will be increasing global instability caused by a turbulent economy held permanent hostage to terrorists, unstable dictatorships, resource wars, and natural disasters.

There's not a lot we can do about this in the short term, but a halfway sensible energy policy could do a lot of good in the medium and long term. I'll finish up with a few words about that tomorrow.

Continue to Part 5.

Kevin Drum 12:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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June 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MESSAGE FROM NAIROBI....I don't normally act as a mail drop, but there are exceptions to every rule. I just received this email:

I work at a V.A. hospital with the frequent contributor known on Political Animal as "Shameless Hussy" I just got off the phone with her, she called from the ground in Nairobi. She is on her way to Chad to a group of refugee camps across the border from Darfur, and had only a few minutes before leaving the last vestiges of civilization. (I think she and I have different ideas of what constitutes civilization.) Anyway, she asked me to pass that along because several of her "thread buddies" had asked her to pass info through you. If I hear from her again, I will pass on the update.

SH is doing the work the rest of us only chatter about here in blogland. Wish her well.

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TRUST....Swiss researchers have discovered a hormone that increases your trust in fellow human beings:

Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and colleagues tested 194 healthy male students in a series of sophisticated games of risk and trust....Some players were given a whiff of oxytocin, some inhaled a vial of air. None of the players knew what they were sniffing and none knew whether the trustees were trustworthy or not: they had to make a decision. Those who sniffed oxytocin showed a greater propensity to trust someone than those who simply inhaled air.

But when the trustee was replaced with a computer, both sets of investors showed much the same judgment. So the oxytocin did not make the investors generally more gullible or profligate: the effect was only visible when they had to deal with another human being.

...."Some may worry about the prospect that political operators will generously spray the crowd with oxytocin at rallies of their candidates," [University of Iowa researcher Antonio Damasio said] in Nature.

How sad that Lee Atwater isn't around to take advantage of this development. Just think what he could have accomplished.

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TIME TO LIGHTEN UP....Britain has a new record for complaints about a television commercial: 1,671 people have protested against a KFC ad in which call center employees sang with their mouths full:

Offended viewers said it encouraged bad manners in children by making it appear funny to sing or speak while eating, and 41 of those who complained said their children had aped the ad.

....The advert used subtitles to explain what the three call center staff were singing as they munched KFC salads, leading some viewers to complain that it mocked people with speech and hearing impediments.

It ended with one of the women answering a phone singing, "Hello, emergency helpline," which prompted others to complain that it implied call center staff were unprofessional.

It's true that 1,671 is a pathetic showing by America's supercharged standards, aided as they are by Brent Bozell's well-honed professional outrage machine. Still, that's a pretty impressive showing over bad table manners, isn't it?

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THE DUTCH VOTE NO....The polls have closed in the Netherlands, and exit polls say that the Dutch have voted overwhelmingly against the new EU constitution. I'd say that's the final nail in the coffin.

But please: I've already had enough of headlines about the French "Non," so can we please avoid a second round about the Dutch "Nee"? Pretty please?

And no Monty Python jokes either. I'm not kidding about this, folks. No Monty Python jokes.

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ARNOLD THE PITCHMAN....I passed up an opportunity to blog about Governor Arnold's pothole photo op the other day (yes, his people actually dug a pothole on a well maintained suburban street just so they could film him filling it in), so I'm going to make up for it by posting about the latest from Mr. "No Special Interests": product placements in his campaign ads.

Via Digby, BAGnews has a shot-by-shot deconstruction of Arnold's latest ad, one of a series currently infesting my TV screen in which he tells a group of average citizens that the legislature is out of control and must be stopped etc. etc. etc. BAG thinks Arnold screwed up the ad via poor lighting, weird facial expressions, litter on the table, and so forth, but I think that's probably deliberate. He was going for a look that says he's really in a lunchroom with some genuinely average folks, and that's what he got.

But what I didn't know is that the junk food littered on the table all comes from companies owned by Nestle and Pepsi:

The TV ad, released in May, features Schwarzenegger talking to people in a lunchroom, and places Pepsi and Arrowhead Water in prominent spots next to the governor for one-third of the ad....Also recognizable on-screen are Ruffles, Sun Chips, Cheetos and a SoBe Beverage, all brands owned by Pepsi.

....Pepsi gave the governor $30,000 in campaign contributions. The CEO of Nestle, the parent company of Arrowhead, gave Schwarzenegger $21,200. Another Nestle family company, Dreyer's Ice Cream, and company executives gave the governor $228,600.

I guess that's why he's governor and I'm not: it never would have occurred to me to fill my campaign commercials with brand named trash from my contributors, but it was second nature to him. The banality of corruption is everpresent, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 2:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CHENEY ON IRAQ....Dick Cheney on the guerrilla war we're fighting in Iraq:

The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint, I think, will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.

Prosperity is just around the corner!

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ACCOUNTABILITY....I guess Thailand has figured out the right way to deal with central bankers who fail to adequately deal with a financial crisis: fine them the amount of money they spent desperately trying to prop up their currency. In this case, that would be $4.6 billion. Plus interest from 1997, just to round things out.

Yeah, that should do it. He has a month to pay up.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MALPRACTICE AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN....Just in case you haven't gotten the message yet, here's another study of medical malpractice that comes to the same conclusion as practically every other study done in the past couple of years: the medical malpractice "crisis" is mostly an invention of insurance companies and their friends in Congress. As the chart below shows, malpractice payouts have grown at about the same rate as medical costs in general. In 1992, malpractice payouts amounted to about 0.3% of total healthcare spending and 1.2% of physician and clinical spending. In 2002, the numbers were....0.3% and 1.2%.

(And yes, before anyone asks, these figures are for both court judgments and out-of-court settlements. The data comes from mandatory reporting of malpractice payments to the National Practitioner Data Bank, which has been required by federal law since 1990. It includes everything.)

The basic numbers are pretty simple: the number of total judgments per physician has gone gradually down, while the total value of payouts has gone gradually up. However, the increase has been small, and matches the overall growth in medical costs.

You can argue about whether malpractice costs should grow at the same rate as overall medical costs or not, but it's a tiny argument, not an excuse for crisis mongering. In fact, what's most striking about the numbers is that growth in payouts has been steady and slow. There haven't been any spikes, and certainly no excuses for sudden 100% increases in insurance premiums.

Analysts on all sides of this debate agree that reform of the malpractice process would be a good idea. But for the most part, the skyrocketing premiums we've seen over the past couple of years are the result of insurance company incompetence and greed, not actual increases in malpractice payouts. Until everyone figures this out, there's not much chance of making any real progress.

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CONGRESSIONAL CORRUPTION....A few weeks ago I linked to Art Levine's American Prospect article about endemic corruption in Congress, but only the section of the story about Rep. Bob Ney was online. The whole thing is now up, so here's an excerpt from the saga of Joe Barton and Westar Energy:

For pure blatancy, Westars pay-for-play scheme was extraordinary in the recent history of congressional influence peddling....The company spelled out its strategy in May 2002 internal memos that explained how to get a seat at the conference-committee table and spelled out the dollar amounts demanded by Barton and others. The executives and lobbyists responded by opening their checkbooks.

At first, the infusion of cash bought the provision that they wanted. On September 18, 2002, Barton successfully placed the Westar loophole in the House conference version of the energy bill. A little more than a week later, however, Westar became as radioactive as a nuclear dump when its corporate officers received a grand-jury subpoena. By October, even House Republicans who had glommed Westars money decided that the sec exemption looked bad, and they withdrew the language from the controversial energy bill.

Unlike some other legislators, Barton apparently didnt even give the money back. And he doesnt seem likely to face any consequences for his unethical conduct.

That's a shocker, eh?

The rest of the article targets Curt Weldon, Maxine Waters (yes, a Democrat!), and an additional rogues gallery of honorable mentions. Read it and weep.

Kevin Drum 1:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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