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Tilting at Windmills

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September 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LIAR, LIAR....Here's my proposal for cleaning up government: we should require all politicians to undergo brain scans and then allow them to hold office only if they exhibit lower than average levels of white matter in their prefrontal cortex. It would revolutionize the profession! In fact, I have a short list of current politicians who I think should be tested immediately.

Explanation for this proposed constitutional amendment here.

Kevin Drum 7:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EQUITY PREMIUM CHATTER....Via Tyler Cowen, New Economist has an interesting roundup of reactions to a new paper by Robert Barro purporting to explain the equity premium puzzle. In a nutshell, the puzzle is this: why do U.S. stocks have a higher long-term rate of return than Treasury bonds? In theory, investors should demand a higher return on stocks, but only enough to make up for the fact that stocks are riskier than bonds. In real life, though, it turns out that even when you take risk into account, stocks still have higher returns. Why?

Barro's answer, which amplifies on a solution proposed nearly two decades ago by Thomas Rietz, is that investors are fundamentally irrational: they are overestimating the probability of unlikely but catastrophic losses, and this fear makes the demand for risk-free investments larger than it rationally ought to be and thus drives down their price. In other words, the mystery is not so much that returns from stocks are higher than they should be, but that returns from bonds are so low. As Barro puts it:

The equity premium is mostly about the very low risk-free real interest rate. The rare-disasters framework says that this low risk-free rate reflects the large demand for risk-free assets because of the potential for big disasters.

Needless to say, I have nothing to add to this, although it's an explanation I find appealing because of my fondness for Prospect Theory, which is based on the fact that people are not so much risk averse as loss averse. It turns out that most people feel much more strongly about the probability of a loss than they do about the probability of an equivalent gain, and it seems like this is partly what's going on here.

In any case, Barro argues that we can test his theory by examining interest rates in the wake of catastrophic events that increase the fear of future catastrophic events:

A small increase in this kind of risk as an example, due to the September 11th events leads to a noticeable response of real interest rates. When this probability goes up, the risk-free rate goes down because people put more of a premium on holding a relatively safe asset.

This debate is far from over, but Barro's contribution is to propose an analytic framework that can be tested. I don't think it can be easily tested, since it relies heavily on perceptions, which are not straightforward things to measure, but at least it's something.

Kevin Drum 2:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JUDITH MILLER UPDATE....Judith Miller just returned from providing testimony in the Plame case. She says she refused to testify until she got a personal letter from her source followed by a personal telephone call in jail that convinced her he genuinely wanted her to testify. In addition, she said that Patrick Fitzgerald had agreed to limit her testimony to only her conversations with the source who released her.

Aside from that, she said nothing. She wasn't even willing to publicly state that her source was Scooter Libby.

More later.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FACT CHECKING....As regular readers know, I'm convinced that the 60 Minutes Killian memos were fake and that Mary Mapes and Dan Rather were negligent in putting them on the air. However, via Blogoland, this passage from Power Line is just wrong:

The source of the documents was Bill Burkett, a notorious Bush-hating crank with a personal vendetta against the National Guard. He lied about where he got the documents. First he said they were given to him by someone named "Conn" who promptly left for Europe. (CBS never made any attempt to locate Mr. Conn, who turned out to be fictitious, to verify Burkett's story or, more important, find out where Conn got them.) After the 60 Minutes story blew up, Burkett admitted that Conn didn't exist.

Of course Conn exists, and he hadn't "promptly left for Europe." That's where he works. The Boston Globe spoke to him on February 13, 2004, and so did I. You can read my interview with him here.

He's not the source of the Killian documents, but he's quite real.

Kevin Drum 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DELAY INC....Jon Chait on the DeLay-ization of the Republican party:

When a politician is enmeshed in scandal, it usually has little to do with the regular way he conducts himself in office....The indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is another matter entirely. It's hard to imagine how DeLay could function without at least coming very close to breaking the law. His indictment is an indictment of the whole way the Republican Party operates.

....The central vision of DeLayism is of a political system whereby business gains almost total control over the Republican agenda, and in return the GOP gains unlimited financial influence over the electoral process.

....You could easily have had a Democratic president carrying out Clinton's program without dipping into the intern pool. Somebody could do Frist's job just as well without trading (allegedly) on inside stock information. But you simply cannot fulfill DeLay's responsibilities without wallowing in sleaze.

Corporate support has always been an integral part of the Republican party, of course, but not since the turn of the century has it been so open and so openly sleazy. This is not a coincidence. In fact, recreating that era has long been one of Karl Rove's pet projects:

Much was made during the 2000 campaign of Rove's appreciation of Mark Hanna, the late-nineteenth-century industrialist who, as the political genius of the McKinley operation, remade the Republican Party....Hanna's strategy was to align voters not by class but by sector. Industrialists and urban workers both benefited from the tariffs that McKinley championed....Even though those industrialists paid their workers a miserably low wage, Hanna found common ground between these two conflicting classes and there built a Republican coalition that lasted for more than 30 years.

Follow the Bush White House over the past few months and it's apparent that Rove grows more Hanna-like by the week.

Hanna was the money man of the turn-of-the-century Republican party, and the ironclad and mutually beneficial relationship he built between the party and its favored industrialists has been recreated in uncanny detail a century later by conservative leaders like Rove, DeLay, Grover Norquist, and, of course, DeLay's replacement, Roy Blunt.

In fact, each succeeding generation of conservative leadership has become ever more dependent on this relationship, to the point where it's literally hard to know where the party stops and its corporate paymasters begin. In the words of Rep. Mike Rogers, who worked with Blunt on last year's obscene pander-fest of a tax bill, the way to get the bill passed was simply to keep adding tax breaks until every possible industry was satisfied. As new tax breaks were added to the bill, the vote count "just got better and better," he said. "It was incredible."

Oink oink.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESS IN IRAQ....I was channel surfing earlier this evening and caught a few seconds of Carl Levin on the News Hour complaining that there's still only one Iraqi combat battalion capable of fighting on its own. Yeah, that kind of sucks, I thought.

Turns out it's worse than that:

The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday, adding that the security situation in Iraq is too uncertain to predict large-scale American troop withdrawals anytime soon.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, said there are fewer Iraqi battalions at "Level 1" readiness than there were a few months ago....

Now, Casey can claim until his face turns blue that things in Iraq are getting better, but if this is where we're at after two years of Iraqi troop training, then his definition of "better" is a far, far different one than mine.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is why we need firm goals and benchmarks for progress in Iraq. Casey says that "conditions-based reduction of coalition forces is a critical element of our strategy," but that's meaningless twaddle unless you're willing to say what conditions you're talking about. I say, let's hear it. What are the conditions we need to meet in order to begin drawing down troops? This isn't the dreaded timetable that everyone is so afraid will send the insurgency into a frenzy, it's a simple statement of what we're trying to accomplish in Iraq, something that the American public can hold the military accountable for.

Let's hear it.

POSTSCRIPT: If there were a Pollyanna decoration for military officers, Casey would have won one today:

Asked whether the insurgency has worsened, Casey said it has not expanded geographically or numerically, "to the extent we can know that." But he noted that current "levels of violence are above norms," exceeding 500 attacks a week. "I'll tell you that levels of violence are a lagging indicator of success," he added.

Violence is "above norms" but that doesn't mean things are getting worse. In fact, violence is a "lagging indicator of success"! The more bombs, the better we're doing!

Kevin Drum 2:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MILLER RELEASED....I'm watching MSNBC, and Pete Williams has just confirmed that Judith Miller is out of jail. Apparently she'll be testifying in federal court on Friday. Here's the Philadelphia Inquirer account:

Miller left an Alexandria, Va. jail late this afternoon, a jail official said.

She was released after she had a telephone conversation with the Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, sources said. In that conversation, Libby reaffirmed that he had released Miller from a promise of confidentiality more than a year ago, sources said.

Tomorrow should be fun....

UPDATE: From the New York Times:

The agreement that led to Ms. Miller's release followed intense negotiations between Ms. Miller; her lawyer, Robert Bennett; Mr. Libby's lawyer, Joseph Tate; and Mr. Fitzgerald. The talks began with a telephone call from Mr. Bennett to Mr. Tate in late August. Ms. Miller spoke with Mr. Libby by telephone earlier this month as their lawyers listened, according to people briefed on the matter. It was then that Mr. Libby told Ms. Miller that she had his personal and voluntary waiver.

But the discussions were at times strained, with Mr. Libby and Mr. Tate asserting that they communicated their voluntary waiver to Ms. Miller's lawyers more than year ago, according to those briefed on the case. Mr. Libby wrote to Ms. Miller in mid-September, saying that he believed her lawyers understood that his waiver was voluntary.

Translation: Miller's lawyer called Libby's lawyer last month; Libby said his generic waiver a year ago was plenty; Miller said it wasn't; Libby said fine, I'm telling you now you have a waiver; really and truly?; yes, yes, really and truly.

So tomorrow morning Miller testifies. And as near as I can tell, that's all that Patrick Fitzgerald needs to wrap up the Plame case. Before long, we should know if he's got anything or not.

Kevin Drum 8:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BIGGEST. COCKUP. EVER....Via OxBlog, I see that Sir Richard Mottram, my favorite British civil servant of all time, has been promoted. He is to become the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and thus the prime minister's top security and intelligence adviser.

Why is he my favorite? It's in the seventh paragraph of the Guardian's story.

Kevin Drum 5:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NO BLACKMAIL....A federal judge has ordered the government to release dozens of pictures and videotapes from Abu Ghraib that have been withheld on the grounds that they would provoke terrorists and incite violence against U.S. troops in Iraq. Here's his reasoning:

U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said that terrorists "do not need pretexts for their barbarism" and that suppressing the pictures would amount to submitting to blackmail.

"Our nation does not surrender to blackmail, and fear of blackmail is not a legally sufficient argument to prevent us from performing a statutory command."

This is as perfect a demonstration of turning the right's own weapons against it as I've ever seen. Terrorists "do not need pretexts for their barbarism." The United States "does not surrender to blackmail." That's perfect, especially coming from a judge who's a former JAG lawyer.

The decision will be appealed, of course, so don't get too excited at this blow against government secrecy. But it's still worth noting just for its poetic beauty.

Kevin Drum 4:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LEGALIZED RAILROADING....Today the Senate will consider the Streamlined Procedures Act, a blandly titled bill that would practically eliminate federal oversight of state criminal justice systems. Ira Reiner, the Los Angeles district attorney for eight years in the late 80s and early 90s, wrote a good piece a few days ago about why this legislation should be voted down:

Essentially, the legislation would eviscerate the role of the federal courts in ensuring that innocent people are not mistakenly convicted of crimes and that state courts do not send people to prison in violation of their constitutional rights. It would restrict habeas corpus rights, which are enshrined in the Constitution, date back to the Magna Carta and guarantee that you can go to a court and tell a judge that you are being held illegally.

Why is this the role of the federal courts? Although most state courts and prosecutors are committed to the highest expression of justice, it is unfortunately true that sometimes that ideal is honored more in the breach than in observance. Historically, it is the federal courts that have provided the necessary corrective action when state courts fail.

....I am one of more than 50 former prosecutors who have written to the Senate Judiciary Committee to express concern about the legislation.

....At the very heart of the American criminal justice system is the bedrock principle that every person charged with a crime should receive a fair trial. All else is simply procedure. A fair trial means an honest trial, properly conducted with honest evidence. Anything less is neither justice nor American. Ensuring the right to a fair trial is what gives prosecutors the moral authority to do their jobs, to strike strong blows but fair ones. We cannot allow "due process of law" to be reduced to a mere platitude.

Italics mine.

This is actually a pretty good test for the alleged "moderate" Republicans in the Senate. Not only is this is a plainly bad bill that deserves to be soundly defeated, but it's hardly something that's a key part of the president's agenda. There's no major test of loyalty here.

Will they do the right thing?

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI ELECTION UPDATE....Nancy Youssef of Knight Ridder reports that the proposed Iraqi constitution is almost certain to pass:

The two strongest opponents of Iraq's proposed new constitution said this week that they wouldn't campaign against it aggressively, making it likely that voters will approve the constitution in an Oct. 15 referendum.

....Rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's representatives said that while he's not thrilled about the constitution, he likely wouldn't encourage his followers to oppose it.

....The largest Sunni political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said that although it has encouraged its supporters to vote down the document, its efforts are focused on the December election for a new National Assembly.

....Al-Sadr's and the Islamic Party's positions coupled with last week's call from associates of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, to pass the document virtually assure that the constitution will pass. A word from the widely revered al-Sistani will sway much of the Shiite populace, which makes up 60 percent of Iraqis.

Neither al-Sadr nor the Sunnis are actively enthusiastic about the constitution, but this still strikes me as good news. However, whether it has any effect on the insurgency remains to be seen. So far, there's no sign of that.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHO'S THE SQUEALER?....Hmmm. Apropos of this post wondering if someone has agreed to squeal on Tom DeLay, a reader from Texas says: "Word down here already in late spring was that Sears, most likely, or another one of the corporations that agreed to participate in the TRMPAC shakedown, not Ellis, Colyandro, etc., would be the squealer."

That sounds like it might be a possibility. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Over at the Stakeholder, Jesse Lee nominates Warren RoBold of Maryland as a possibly disgruntled squealer. Apparently there are plenty of candidates!

Kevin Drum 2:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE R-WORD....Kevin Hall of Knight Ridder reports that economists are becoming increasingly bearish about the U.S. economy:

Economic forecasters and Wall Street analysts are quietly hedging their bets after months of rosy reports about a vibrant U.S. economic outlook. They're now mentioning the growing possibility of recession ahead.

Why? Soaring gasoline prices, nightmarish home-heating costs this winter, plunging consumer confidence, rising interest rates and falling new-home sales.

.... Executives at Wal-Mart, the country's biggest retailer, are warning of weaker sales ahead as high gasoline and home-heating prices eat their customers' cash.

This week, the government reported that housing starts fell in August, and July starts were revised downward. Stephen Roach, the chief economist for Morgan Stanley, the giant investment bank in New York, warns that America is a "shoestring economy," kept afloat only by reckless borrowing by consumers and the government alike. He thinks a slowdown in home sales will expose how much economic growth has been fueled by risky borrowing against home equity.

This is still a minority view, apparently, but it's growing. Something to keep in mind in case you're contemplating telling your boss exactly what you think of him.

Kevin Drum 2:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ARCTIC ICE....The polar icecap is still shrinking, and there's not much question that greenhouse gases are playing a role:

This summer was the fourth in a row with ice extents sharply below the long-term average, said Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the [National Snow and Ice Data Center] and a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

A natural cycle in the polar atmosphere, the Arctic Oscillation, that contributed to the reduction in Arctic ice in the past was not a significant factor right now, he said, adding that rising temperatures driven by accumulating greenhouse-gas emissions had to be playing a role.

A shrinking polar icecap doesn't raise sea levels, so what's the problem? Here's what Serreze told the BBC:

"What we're seeing is a process in which we start to lose ice cover during the summer," he said, "so areas which formerly had ice are now open water, which is dark.

"These dark areas absorb a lot of the Sun's energy, much more than the ice; and what happens then is that the oceans start to warm up, and it becomes very difficult for ice to form during the following autumn and winter.

"It looks like this is exactly what we're seeing a positive feedback effect, a 'tipping-point'."

The idea behind tipping-points is that at some stage the rate of global warming would accelerate, as rising temperatures break down natural restraints or trigger environmental changes which release further amounts of greenhouse gases.

Read the rest for more about tipping points. It's not pretty.

Kevin Drum 9:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NICKY-NICKS....There's a database of nicknames that President Bush has bestowed on his unfortunate friends? Yes there is. You learn something new every day.

Kevin Drum 8:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RONNIE EARLE'S HAND....It's funny, but no one seems to be speculating about what kind of evidence Ronnie Earle actually has against Tom DeLay. (Except for Republicans, of course, who are unanimously echoing the official line that the whole thing is a partisan witch hunt.) For those who haven't been following this affair, the basic story is that it's illegal in Texas for corporations to contribute to political campaigns. To get around that, DeLay's PAC (called TRMPAC) donated money to the Republican National Committee, which then turned around and contributed some of its money to TRMPAC's favored candidates. Several people associated with TRMPAC have already been indicted for this activity.

The basic case against TRMPAC seems pretty good, but today's indictment says nothing at all in support of the theory that DeLay knew what was going on and actively supported the scheme.

Personally, I figure that of course DeLay knew but by that standard, half of Congress would be in jail. By the actual standards of real criminal courts, however, Earle is going to have to present some evidence that supports his theory that DeLay conspired with the TRMPAC directors. In other words, someone is going to have to testify against DeLay.

So: has one of the folks who were previously indicted finally agreed to cooperate with Earle in return for a lighter sentence? Because it sure seems like that's what it's going to take. But Earle isn't talking, and so far neither is anyone else.

Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 5:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHISPERING CAMPAIGN....Is every single liberal blog in the world planning to post a sniggering, wink-wink-nudge-nudge mention that David Dreier is rumored to be gay? Pardon me while I throw up.

And spare me the drivel about the "principled" case for outing gay politicians. I'm not buying, and there's nothing principled going on here in any case. It's just childish nonsense that perpetuates the notion that there's something sordid about being gay. Conservatives were wrong to conduct a decade long witch hunt against Bill Clinton's sex life, and liberals are wrong to join in when the shoe is on the other foot.

(Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm living in the past. Sigh.)

Kevin Drum 3:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DELAY UPDATE....Here's the AP dispatch on Tom DeLay's indictment:

DeLay attorney Steve Brittain said DeLay was accused of a criminal conspiracy along with two associates, John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political committee.

GOP congressional officials said the plan was for DeLay to temporarily relinquish his leadership post and Speaker Dennis Hastert will recommend that Rep. David Dreier of California step into those duties.

All we need now is a Plame indictment and we'd have the trifecta. Or the pentecta. Or whatever. I can barely keep track of the myriad ethical problems besetting the Republican leadership these days.

I've long been of the opinion that although Democrats are obviously in trouble these days, it's still the case that they're losing elections by only a few points and even a moderate change in the political climate could turn that around. Well, this is it. If Democrats still can't win in 2006, then we've got serious problems.

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DELAY INDICTED....Here's some potentially spicy news. More later.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PRISONER ABUSE IN THE 82nd....Captain Ian Fishback, the man who has made allegations of routine prisoner abuse in the 82nd Airborne Division, says the Army is more interested in the names of his informers than they are in investigating whether higher-ranking officers knew of the abuses:

Captain Fishback, speaking publicly on the matter for first time, said the investigators who have questioned him in the past 10 days seemed to be less interested in individuals he identified in his chain of command who allegedly committed the abuses.

"I'm convinced this is going in a direction that's not consistent with why we came forward," Captain Fishback said in a telephone interview from Fort Bragg, N.C.

....Last Thursday, a day after Human Rights Watch notified the 82nd Airborne that it would be releasing a copy of its report outlining the allegations, Captain Fishback said he was summoned back to Fort Bragg from field training for six hours of questioning by investigators.

The report was made public last Friday, and Captain Fishback said investigators had questioned him for about an hour on Monday and again on Tuesday. "They're asking the same questions over and over again," he said. "They want the names of the sergeants, and they keep asking about my relationship with Human Rights Watch."

Andrew Sullivan takes this story rather further:

My sources tell me that he has been subjected to a series of long, arduous interrogations by CID investigators....The investigators imply that he failed to report abuses, so he may be charged, or that he is peddling falsehoods and will be charged for that. They tell him his career in the Army is over.

....Another source informs that the word is around that Rumsfeld has taken a strong interest in this. He is quoted as saying "Either break him or destroy him, and do it quickly." And no doubt about it, that is just what they are doing. Expect some trumped up charges against Fishback soon, similar to what they did to Muslim Chaplain Captain James Yee, whom they accused of treason with no solid evidence and then, when those charges evaporated, went on to accuse him of adultery.

I have to say that an hour on Monday and again on Tuesday doesn't sound especially "arduous," and I rather doubt that Donald Rumsfeld said anything quite as melodramatic as "break him or destroy him" certainly not within earshot of anyone likely to speak to Andrew, anyway.

Still, quibbles aside, if you read both the NYT story and Andrew's post you get a pretty good picture of a military that's distinctly uninterested in investigating Fishback's allegations and is rather obviously looking for a way to discredit him. It's a disgrace. The Iraq War is destroying the U.S. military in more ways than one.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

CHOOSING TO LOSE....Watching last week as news began to trickle out about which senators would vote which way on Roberts, I was struck by the fact that the pro-life Harry Reid was voting "no" while the pro-choice Lincoln Chafee was, perhaps unsurprisingly, voting "yes." Choice groups--who strongly oppose Roberts--are pleased by Reid's decision. And yet if they had their way, he's exactly the type of Democrat they'd like to see defeated and replaced with a Lincoln Chafee clone.

So I wrote this quick piece for the Boston Globe, questioning the wisdom of the choice groups' political strategy from a pro-choice perspective.

Following defeats at the polls in last year's elections, leading Democrats started to say publicly what many had suggested in private for years: The party needed to make an effort to welcome pro-life voters.

You'll remember that, in quick succession during the winter, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Howard Dean all suggested that Democrats might benefit from welcoming more pro-life candidates.

But the final straw came when Senate Democrats acted on this advice and recruited pro-life Democrat Bob Casey to run against Rick Santorum for Pennsylvania's Senate seat in 2006.

Pro-choice advocates lashed out. National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy called out Kerry and Dean by name, and declared: ''If that's what it means to have a big tent, if it means abandoning the core principles of our party, if it means throwing women's rights overboard like so much ballast...then I say let's keep the skunk out of the tent."....The word soon went out that Casey would get no support from women's groups, and powerful donors were encouraged to refrain from giving to his campaign. The race appears to have become a test case for many in the pro-choice community. They would rather see Casey lose than defeat Santorum, perhaps the Senate's most vociferous abortion opponent.

As if to underline their point, NARAL took the unusual step of endorsing Senator Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, a full year and a half before the 2006 election. The message was clear: a pro-choice Republican is always preferable to a pro-life Democrat. It didn't take long for NARAL to regret the move. Less than three weeks later, Chafee voted to support the nomination of radically conservative judge Janice Rogers Brown. NARAL issued an angry press release, warning Chafee that they would be ''watching closely his future votes on judicial nominees, including...those for the Supreme Court." Now, of course, Chafee has announced he will vote in support of Roberts.

Now, no one expects pro-choice groups to endorse or fund pro-life candidates. That wouldn't make sense. But--and this is my point--they could just be neutral. That's what they've done in the Virginia gubernatorial campaign. Because if you care about choice, five Harry Reids (or Bob Caseys) are worth more than five Lincoln Chafees for the simple reason that a Harry Reid-led Senate wouldn't push anti-abortion legislation and a Bill Frist-led Senate does.

This is not a difficult calculation. And yet it gets lost in all of the yelling about "giving up our principles" and only wanting "the right kind of Democrats." I think I'm going to scream if one more person tells me that if Casey loses, it will prove to the Democratic Party that it can't get away with running pro-life candidates because: a) their beliefs will cost them votes; and b) they'll lose traditional liberal sources of money and support.

The impulse to engage in ideological cleansing is understandable and it is dangerously stupid. It is folly to pretend that pro-choice Dems stand an even or better chance against Republicans in some races. And it takes the eye off the ball. There is pro-life and then there is pro-life. Deciding between the "wrong" kind of Democrat and someone who thinks "that victims of rape and incest should be allowed abortions only if they report the crime within seven days" is an easy choice.

Amy Sullivan 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 27, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BAD BOOKS....Hmmm. I've only read 14 out of the top 100 "Most Frequently Challenged Books," as compiled by the American Library Association. If this stuff is really so dangerous, it seems like I should be reading a little more of it.

Kevin Drum 11:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WINNING....As we all know, George Bush's approval numbers are in free fall. Democracy Corps says this is good news for Democrats:

The fallout from these conclusions are quite dramatic. Democrats have a 9-point lead in the congressional balloting produced by a continuing fall in the numbers of people wanting to vote Republican. As in our last poll, Democratic House incumbents are running 10 points stronger against their opponents than Republican incumbents against theirs.

Unfortunately, this means exactly the opposite of what Democracy Corps says it means. Last June, as you may recall, Democrats had a lead of at least 9 points in generic congressional polls, but when November rolled around Republicans won 51% of the congressional vote. In other words, a 9-point lead at this stage of the game means that in reality we're running about even and that's bad news, not good. After the pummeling Bush has taken lately, Democrats ought to be far ahead.

This explains why I'm not as enthusiastic about the "netroots" as I could be. George Bush is failing miserably, his approval ratings are in the tank, the liberal base is seething with anger, and yet it's all translating into....nothing. E.J. Dionne explains why today:

[The Democratic] party's problems are structural and can be explained by three numbers: 21, 34 and 45. According to the network exit polls, 21 percent of the voters who cast ballots in 2004 called themselves liberal, 34 percent said they were conservative and 45 percent called themselves moderate.

Those numbers mean that liberal-leaning Democrats are far more dependent than conservatively inclined Republicans on alliances with the political center.

Dionne is right: this liberal-conservative split has been rock steady for decades, and its meaning is simple: energizing the base just isn't enough for Democrats. Even if every hardcore liberal in the country votes Democratic, we have to win about three-quarters of the moderates to gain a majority. That means we have to win support pretty far into the conservative end of that moderate center, and people like that simply aren't going to respond to anti-war rallies and screaming campaigns against John Roberts.

This is one reason I haven't blogged much about Roberts. The liberal blogosphere has made opposition to Roberts practically a litmus test of "getting it," of understanding that liberals can play every bit as hard as conservatives. But you know what? It's the netroots that doesn't get it. They think unyielding opposition to Roberts shows how tough we are, but what most Americans see including all those moderates whose votes we need is a guy who seems conservative, but also mild mannered, intelligent, and well qualified. It's true that he took nonresponsiveness to whole new levels during his confirmation hearings, but let's face it: that particular Kabuki dance started after Robert Bork flamed out spectactularly for being a little too forthcoming to Senate questioners. Roberts just refined it a bit.

The fact is, by every previous standard of Supreme Court nominees, Roberts is well qualified for his position. Is he conservative? Of course he is. But that's because the American public elected a conservative president and a conservative Senate. If we want better nominees, that's what needs to change.

And the way to change that is to change the minds of centrist voters who are tiring of George Bush and the Republican party but still wary of Democrats. They may say they're fed up with Bush, but when it comes time to pull the lever on election day they also need to feel like it's safe to vote for a Democrat. Right now they still don't.

That's the problem the netroots should start thinking about. After all, I think we've pretty much got the "energizing the base" thing down cold. It's time to take the next step.

Kevin Drum 9:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CRUCIFIXION....Wow. This is about the shallowest, most supercilious piece of journalism I've read in quite a while. It's probably what "Radical Chic" would have been like if it had been written by Holden Caulfield.

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By: Kevin Drum

HAPPY 100th ANNIVERSARY....Here's the way Einstein originally wrote it in English translation, of course. The full text of his (short) article "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on Its Energy Content?" published on September 27, 1905, is here.

In case you're wondering how this becomes the famous e = mc, K (on the left side of the equation) is kinetic energy (mv/2) and L (on the right side) is energy of radiation. So it becomes:

A little bit of arithmetic, and it assumes its more famous form. And that's all it takes to become the most famous physicist of the 20th century.

Kevin Drum 5:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SAUDI OIL....Via Tapped, I see that Saudi Arabia is claiming that it has a lot more oil than Matt Simmons or anyone else thinks they have. From Bloomberg:

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, will "soon" almost double its proven reserve base, adding 200 billion barrels to the current estimate of 264 billion, said the nation's oil minister, Ali al-Naimi.

...."There will be plenty of oil available to meet future demand," al-Naimi said today in Johannesburg. Prices are high now because "the petroleum industry faces infrastructure constraints and bottlenecks that are causing market volatility and restricting its ability to bring oil from the ground to the consumer."

That would be good news indeed, and I hope al-Naimi is right. More specifically, though, I hope that al-Naimi is willing to provide transparent evidence that this increase is real, and not based on wishful thinking or political calculation. Estimating proven reserves is a tricky science, and the only way to know that anyone's numbers are legitimate is if they're opened up for review by outside experts. Is Saudi Arabia willing to do that?

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RATHERGATE UPDATE....I don't know what the rest of the book says, but if the first chapter of Mary Mapes's new book is any indication, she's still clinging to the notion that the infamous Killian memos that were broadcast on 60 Minutes last September are real. Mapes was the producer of that segment, and in her forthcoming book she recounts how she felt after bloggers began questioning the authenticity of the documents:

I talked to our document analyst Marcel Matley, now back in San Francisco....And he pointed out something that would be a huge problem for us in the days ahead: that in the process of downloading, scanning, faxing, and photocopying, some computers, copiers, and faxes changed spacing and subtly altered fonts. He thought that this basic misunderstanding of how documents changed through electronic transmittal was behind the unfounded certainty and ferocity of the attack on the documents.

....But I thought Matleys belief that a technical misunderstanding was behind the ferocious attack was too good to be true.

I was afraid that this time Matley, who was an experienced document analyst and longtime expert witness, was out of his element. He knew a great deal about documents and signatures. But I knew attack politics.

For chrissake. Yes, it was attack politics, but there were plenty of good questions about the appearance and provenance of the memos that were legitimate regardless of who was asking them. The memos were typed in a proportional font with a centered header, something virtually impossible for a small office in 1972. Killian's secretary who believes George Bush is "unfit for office" has testified that she typed all his memos and did so on two machines with fixed pitch fonts. She also says she never typed the memos that 60 Minutes aired. Bill Burkett, the source of the memos, is a stone Bush hater, the farthest thing imaginable from CBS's original description of him as an "unimpeachable source." What's more, Burkett's story didn't even make sense to anyone who had followed this story for a while which Mapes had and he later admitted that he had lied about where he got the memos.

This is ridiculous. Mary Mapes went to air with a story that was full of obvious holes and hadn't been checked adequately. There is tons of evidence that the memos are forged and not one single piece of evidence suggesting they're real. If Mapes is still trying to defend them, she's delusional.

And for any of the rest of you still holding out hope that just maybe the memos are real after all, let me put it this way: the evidence that they're genuine is about equivalent to the evidence that Intelligent Design is a better theory than evolution. If you're part of the reality based community, it's time to face the facts on this.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A WEE COMPLAINT....This is an open letter to the online advertising community. The following problems have become overwhelmingly common even on mainstream sites:

  • Ads that malfunction in a way that causes your browser to overload and use 95% of your system resources, effectively bringing your PC to a halt.

  • Ads that malfunction and cover up parts of the screen they aren't supposed to.

  • Ad that flicker wildly for five or ten seconds before finally settling down.

  • Ads that somehow disable the Back button on your browser. Related: ads that prevent you from leaving a site altogether, forcing you to shut down your browser in order to get further work done.

  • Ads that decline to close even though they supposedly have a close button.

  • Ads that prevent a site from loading just because the ad server is malfunctioning.

Knock it off. If you can't serve up ads in the way they're supposed to be served up, get out of the business.

That is all.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ECONOMY WATCH....Cripes. Did the Consumer Confidence Index really drop nearly 20 points in a single month? Yes it did.

There was a big drop in new housing sales too. That's a bad combination:

The report on new home sales showed that the weakness last month was widespread around the country, led by a sharp 22 percent drop in the Northeast, the biggest setback in that area since last December.

Sales fell by 17.9 percent in the West, the biggest decline since last November, while sales were down 10.6 percent in the Midwest, the largest drop in that region since January.

It's not the apocalypse or anything, but it's worth keeping an eye on. Maybe the plunge in consumer confidence is strictly a Hurricane Katrina phenomenon and will rebound next month. Maybe not. In any case, keep your hand on your wallet.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND OIL....George Bush spoke today about oil and gasoline shortages in the aftermath of our recent hurricanes, and in just a few short sentences managed to show off practically everything that's wrong with his governing instincts. Here's what he said:

Bush called on Americans to "pitch in" and conserve gas by reducing non-essential travel, teaming up in carpools and using mass transit.

....Bush said the administration is also continuing to waive rules that require special gasoline and diesel blends in some parts of the country in an effort to cut pollution.

...."These storms show that we need additional capacity in America to be able to meet the needs of the American people," Bush said. He said he would ask Congress to look at expediting the ability of the country's refiners to expand or build new refineries.

He said alternative sources of energy needed to be developed, too. "That's why I believe so strongly in nuclear power," Bush said.

First, he talks about conservation but asks only that people "pitch in." He is unwilling to propose any serious government action to reduce oil use.

Second, he talks about environmental restrictions disliked by the energy industry. On this score, unlike the first, he is happy to propose government action.

Third, at the end of a discussion directed solely at oil use, he suggests that nuclear power is part of the answer, seemingly oblivious to the fact that nuclear power is a source of electricity, an industry that uses virtually no oil. Increased use of nuclear power would have no effect on oil consumption at all.

So there you have it. An instinctive aversion to using government power when it's opposed by the industry industry, even though conservation measures could have a big impact on oil use; an almost palpable eagerness to use any excuse to strip away environmental rules the energy industry dislikes; and a bland ignorance of basic energy policy that would embarrass a high school student.

This is the Bush administration in a nutshell.

UPDATE: And there's this from the Los Angeles Times:

Republican leaders in Congress announced plans to introduce new legislation or amend existing measures to bestow more tax breaks on the [energy] industry....it appeared the hurricanes may have provided the perfect political storm for industry-backed initiatives that didn't make it into the big energy bill approved earlier this year.

It's like watching pigs at a trough. Oink oink.

Kevin Drum 10:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS REVISITED....David Ignatius writes today that Centcom's top generals are talking about drawing down forces in Iraq over the next year. Here's why:

They don't want the current struggle against Iraqi insurgents, who are nasty but militarily insignificant, to undermine U.S. efforts against the larger threat posed by al Qaeda terrorists, who would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans if they could.

....Among the precepts they discussed here: "use the indirect approach" by working with Iraqi and other partner forces; "avoid the dependency syndrome" by making the Iraqis take responsibility for their own security and governance; and "remove the perception of occupation" by reducing the size and visibility of American forces.

Look, these are our top commanders talking, and they're saying the same thing I did a month ago: we need to draw down our troop levels in order to (a) prevent military overstretch, which limits our ability fight al-Qaeda, (b) force the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security and (c) "remove the perception of occupation," since it's obvious that this perception helps fuel the insurgency. What's more, they're talking about roughly the same timeframe I did.

Can we please now take this seriously? These aren't a bunch of peaceniks yammering away on a blog. These are our most senior generals in the field, and they think (a) we need to draw down, (b) we need to start the drawdown within a year (with a goal of getting to troop levels "that will focus on training and advising the Iraqi military"), and (c) we need to finish the drawdown within "several years."

If these are the right reasons and the right timetable for a drawdown and I think they are then all that's left is to figure out what goals we need to meet in order to begin the drawdown. There's no need to put firm dates to those goals if that's a complete nonstarter, but we still need to make the goals public so that taxpayers can judge whether we're making progress toward meeting them. After all, we're the ones paying for this war.

If the Pentagon brass is willing to talk about this, why aren't Democratic politicians?

Kevin Drum 6:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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URBAN LEGEND UPDATE....Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan tells the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the conventional wisdom about the Superdome and the Convention Center was wrong:

"I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they (national media outlets) have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases, they just accepted what people (on the street) told them....It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism."

....The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. [Mayor Ray] Nagin told [Oprah] Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."

It's hard to get a handle on what really happened. It's clear from the Times-Picayune account that there were a small number of deaths at the Superdome and the Convention Center but mostly from natural causes and none from foul play. There was only one verified account of gunfire. One verified account of attempted rape but the perpetrator was "beaten up" by civilians and apprehended by police.

"I think 99 percent of it is bulls---," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. "Don't get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything....Ninety-nine percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved."

....Jimmie Fore, vice president of the state authority that runs the Convention Center, stayed in the building with a core group of 35 employees until Sept. 1, the Thursday after Katrina. He was appalled by what he saw. Thugs hotwired 75 forklifts and electric carts and looted food and booze from every room in the building, but he said he never saw any violent crimes committed, and neither did any of his employees.

As you might expect, the truth is hard to nail down with certainty. Rapes can go unreported, and assault is hard to verify. By now, the witnesses have all scattered and it's almost impossible to reconstruct what really happened.

Still, although it's clear that conditions were horrific, and there was a pervasive sense of fear and dread in both places during the week following Katrina, the evidence indicates that neither the Superdome nor the Convention Center was overrun by gangs, besieged by crime, or reduced to Lord of the Flies savagery. The national press could do everyone a favor by weighing in on this.

Kevin Drum 1:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SWAGGER....The Washington Post reports that the White House staff is unhappy with George Bush's recent lack of mojo:

Most of all, White House aides want to reestablish Bush's swagger the projection of competence and confidence in the White House that has carried the administration through tough times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Personally, I think these unnamed aides have drunk too much of their own Kool-Aid. There are only a small number of extremely specialized situations in which "swagger" can carry you through, and the response to 9/11 was one of them. The fact that it worked there, though, doesn't mean it's likely to work anywhere else.

But the White House doesn't want my advice on this score. I'm actually linking to this story mainly because I was fascinated by one person's choice of scapegoat:

A top Republican close to the White House since the earliest days said the absence of a "reelection target" and pressure from first lady Laura Bush and others to soften his second-term tone conspired to temper Bush's swagger well before Katrina hit....Since the election, this official said, White House aides reported that Laura Bush was among those counseling Bush to change his cowboy image during the final four years.

Poor Laura. Of all the first ladies in recent memory, she seems the least blameworthy for her husband's political travails. After all, she doesn't consult astrologers, she doesn't call opponents "bitches," and she hasn't been responsible for the failure of a massive healthcare initiative. But she still ends up in the pages of the Post being blamed for the President's insufficient second term swagger.

Really, boys, isn't the fact that Social Security blew up, Iraq is a mess, Katrina was a disaster, dozens of Republicans are under an ethics cloud, and one lone mother managed to ruin the presidential vacation well, isn't that enough? These aides should be looking in a mirror instead of the presidential bedroom.

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FRACTION DIVISION....In the LA Times today, math gurus David Klein and Jennifer Marple tell us that one of the reasons high school kids in Los Angeles aren't learning math is because the teachers themselves get rotten training. This particular anecdote struck me as especially bizarre:

Too often, the math that teachers are taught at district training sessions is just plain wrong. For instance, middle school teachers are erroneously taught that fraction division is repeated subtraction. This makes sense only for special examples such as 3/4 divided by 1/4 . In this case, 3/4 may be decreased by 1/4 a total of three times, until nothing is left, and the quotient is indeed 3. Understanding division as repeated subtraction, however, is nonsensical for a problem like 1/4 divided by 2/3 because 2/3 cannot be subtracted from 1/4 even once. No wonder students have trouble with fractions in high school.

"Fraction division is repeated subtraction"? I don't even get that. Even in the example that "works," how does getting nothing somehow translate into 3?

And what's the point, anyway? It's one thing to try some weird new technique when the old one is difficult to understand, but fraction division is simple. Why would anyone spend any time trying to come up with some new way of teaching it?

UPDATE: I guess I read too quickly. Division as repeated subtraction makes sense for whole numbers, but I missed how it works for fractions. My mistake. It just never occurred to me to think of it that way.

It's still a pretty dumb idea, though.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SERENITY....I'll confess to a certain amount of curiosity about whether the extensive blog marketing campaign for Serenity actually works (see here, here, and here for examples). However, what I'm really struck by is the fact that bloggers can apparently be bought so cheaply. I mean, a free movie ticket? That's what, ten bucks? Sheesh.

On the other hand, as a single data point in support of the idea that the blog campaign is already working pretty well, there's me. All the blogging about Serenity got me interested in Firefly, so last night I went out and spent forty bucks on the box set. That means the Joss Whedon empire is now $40 richer (minus production and distribution costs) and the movie hasn't even come out yet.

Plus there's the fact that I'm writing this post even without free tix. So props to the Serenity marketing team. Good job, guys.

(And what do I think of Firefly? So far it seems decent but not overwhelming. I really like the Kaylee character, though. Jewel Staite does a remarkable job of portraying a relentlessly cheerful person in a way that's neither phony nor grating the usual fate of roles like that. But hell, they made her gain weight for the role? What's up with that?)

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MISCELLANY....Lindsay Beyerstein, after spending a week covering Hurricane Katrina, wants to know how to become a stringer. She'd be good, so if anyone reading this has any work to offer her, head on over to her site and send her an email.

Chris Nolan says, "The more time I spend poking around my old stomping grounds the telecommunications lobby the more certain I am that wireless Internet access will be the consumer issue that raises the profile of the pending rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996."

Barbara O'Brien went to the anti-war rally and has a suggestion: "There should be a syllable limit on the chants. I've long believed a good crowd chant should have no more than three syllables. (Examples: "Kick their ass!" "Bring them home!")"

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GOOFY KIDS AT A KNIFE FIGHT....For some reason, I've read many stories over the years about the ruthless shenanigans of the College Republicans. I guess that's because with alumni like Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff, Lee Atwater, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist, they're just bound to have a lot of stories written about them.

The latest in this genre is Frank Foer's article in this week's New Republic about the most recent election for chair of the College Republicans. Long story short, the insurgent candidate lost (again) and the dirty tricks flew fast and furious (as usual). Here is Foer's concluding paragraph:

A few weeks after the convention, I got in touch with the newly reelected president of College Democrats, Grant Woodard of Grinnell College. For his uncontested race, he said he raised $2,000 $198,000 less than Michael Davidson's estimated take. Unlike the College Republicans, Democratic students are not organized as an independent 527. They reside within the Democratic National Committee and exist largely to supply campaign volunteers. Woodard makes all his calls after 9 p.m., "when I get free cell phone minutes," he told me. His salary is $75,000 lower than the one Chairman Paul Gourley receives that is to say, nonexistent.

The contrast between the two organizations is remarkably vivid. When the liberal Center for American Progress sent a blogger to the CRNC convention, she returned horrified by what she'd witnessed and sentimental about the Democratic operation: "I much prefer our movement with blue jeans, diversity, goofy kids, birkenstocks and good beer (none of that busch light crap). We've definitely gotta step up the field based organizing, but let's make sure we're enjoying it. And each other." Considering their current losing streak, Democrats might want to spend more time contemplating the contrast between the two styles of political education. How often do Birkenstocks trod the road to victory? Can you really count on goofy kids in a knife fight?

Personally, I have a fondness for goofy kids, and I'd just as soon the College Democrats not produce alumni along the lines of Abramoff and Atwater. On the other hand, I would like them to produce alumni who go on to play significant roles in liberal politics. Do they?

Kevin Drum 1:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE FAMILY THAT KEEPS ON GIVING....Today's LA Times story about former Pentagon inspector general Joseph Schmitz is hilarious:

[Current and former colleagues] described a management style in which Schmitz asked for updates on personal projects such as a new bathroom in his executive suite or the hiring of a speechwriter while avoiding substantive issues such as tight budgets.

....Some of the more unusual complaints regarding Schmitz deal with what senior officials called an "obsession" with [Baron Friedrich] Von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero who worked with George Washington to instill discipline in the military. Von Steuben reportedly fled Germany after learning that he was going to be tried for homosexual activities.

Shortly after taking office, Schmitz made Von Steuben's legacy a focus. He spent three months personally redesigning the inspector general's seal to include the Von Steuben family motto, "Always under the protection of the Almighty."

He dictated the number of stars, laurel leaves and colors of the seal. He also asked for a new eagle, saying that the one featured on the old seal "looked like a chicken," current and former officials said.

For Orange County residents with long memories, yes, Joseph is part of that Schmitz family. And the story is slightly less hilarious when it gets to this part:

He paid close attention, however, to the investigations of senior Bush administration appointees. At one point, investigators even stopped telling Schmitz who was under investigation, substituting letter codes for the names of individuals during weekly briefings for fear that Schmitz would leak the information to Pentagon superiors, according to a senior Pentagon official.

....Another case in which Schmitz intervened came when the inspector general's office began examining the jobs received by Pentagon officials who left for the private sector, according to another U.S. official, who also declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

And where is Schmitz now? He left the inspector general's office to take a job in the private sector, of course. He now works for the parent company of defense contractor Blackwater USA. I'm sure they're getting their money's worth.

UPDATE: In comments, some readers are wondering what the joke is about "that Schmitz family." Luckily, another reader emailed me a fond memory of Joseph's father, legendary Orange County congressman John Schmitz, that should give you a clue:

I still remember a press release from Schmitz's office when he was a state senator. Schmitz had scheduled a series of hearings around the state on an anti-abortion bill he had introduced. The press release, on Senate letterhead, was headlined: "State Sen. John G. Schmitz survives the attack of the bull dykes," and went on to complain that at one hearing he was confronted by an audience made up of "hard, female, and arguably Jewish faces....."

Ah, those were the days. Bob Dornan, James Utt, John Schmitz, and the whole John Birch Society clan. Google is your friend if you insist on learning more. And don't forget to Google "Mary Kay Letourneau" while you're at it!

UPDATE 2: Another reader says the correct quote is actually "hard, Jewish, and arguably female faces...." This site backs him up.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS....The Observer reports that the United States and Britain are close to agreement on a set of requirements for a phased withdrawal from Iraq:

British troops will start a major withdrawal from Iraq next May under detailed plans on military disengagement to be published next month, The Observer can reveal.

The document being drawn up by the British government and the US .... [is] now being negotiated between a commission representing the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, and senior US and UK diplomats and military commanders in Baghdad.

....Senior military sources have told The Observer that the document will lay out a point-by-point 'road map' for military disengagement by multinational forces, the first steps of which could be put in place soon after December's nationwide elections.

Each stage of the withdrawal would be locally judged on regional improvements in stability, with units being withdrawn as Iraqi units are deemed capable of taking over....According to the agreement under negotiation, each phase would be triggered when key security, stability and political targets have been reached. The phased withdrawal strategy the British side of which is expected to take at least 12 months to complete would see UK troops hand over command responsibility for security to senior Iraqi officers, while remaining in support as a reserve force.

The British Defence Secretary is careful not to call this a "timetable," but there's only a hair's worth of difference between a detailed set of targets and the timeline that rather obviously goes along with them. After all, once you've set out comprehensive goals, can you really avoid providing estimates for how long you think it's likely to take to meet them?

The story is a little cagey about whether this plan applies only to British troops or also to American troops. The focus of the story is on British forces, but it's not clear if that's just because the Observer is a British newspaper or if it's because there's really a difference between British plans and U.S. plans. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Via comments, Scotland on Sunday says pretty much the exact opposite. Last week's violence in Basra, it says, has "led to the scrapping of a detailed plan that could have seen UK forces withdrawn by May next year. Instead, it now seems certain Prime Minister Tony Blair will have to keep British troops in the country until 2007 at the earliest."

FWIW, the Observer article seems considerably better sourced. It's always hard to tell with British papers, though, which often take a rather blog-like attitude toward their subjects.

UPDATE 2: Tony Blair kinda sorta denies the report. But he doesn't really truly deny it.

Kevin Drum 9:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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QUESTION....Weird request here. I own the box set of The Office, and yesterday I was looking for the series of outtakes in which Tim is sitting in the break room with Keith, who is eating a Scotch egg. If you don't know what I'm talking about, no problem, but if you do, can you tell me where to find it? One of the disks has an "Outtakes" special feature, but the Scotch egg series isn't included. So where is it?

And while everyone is off pondering that, I'm off to watch USC teach Oregon how to play football. It's on ABC this week, unfortunately, since last week's game (on Fox Sports Net) was called by a goofy pair of announcers who turned me into a fan by the end of the game. I mean, it was sort of like listening to Beavis and Butthead call the game, but they were just right for a 70-17 blowout.

FIRST HALF UPDATE: Hmmm. This is not going according to plan. Oregon's defense sure is playing tough.

FINAL UPDATE: That's more like it. Final score 45-13. I guess we'll allow them one shaky quarter.

Gotta admit, though, that Oregon got screwed by the refs. It wouldn't have changed the outcome or anything, but still.

Kevin Drum 7:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SKIN NOT FITTING SO WELL THESE DAYS?....George Bush demonstrates his keen sense of leadership:

Bush was all set to fly to the storm area in Texas, where he planned to observe emergency personnel in action at a San Antonio supply depot. But that plan was scrubbed when the emergency operations group was moved closer to the coast.

Instead, Bush wound up going directly to Colorado, where the Defense Department's Northern Command responsible for domestic troop deployments is monitoring storm developments.

....Some obvious options for Bush were ruled out. He wouldn't stay in Washington, where demonstrators were massing for a huge protest against the Iraq war. He probably would avoid his ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he was criticized for spending the first few days of Katrina instead of visiting the disaster scene. He would want to show attention to the storm, but not get so close that he could become a distraction to rescue officials.

Poor guy. He's got no place to call home.....

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A FEW BAD APPLES....An officer and two NCOs in the 82nd Airborne Division have reported to Human Rights Watch that brutal and casual torture of prisoners held by their unit was (a) routine, (b) well known at "varying levels of command," and (c) directed by military intelligence personnel. From the HRW report:

The officer and NCOs interviewed by Human Rights Watch say that torture of detainees took place almost daily at [Forward Operating Base] Mercury during their entire deployment there, from September 2003 to April 2004.

....The acts of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment they described include severe beatings (in one incident, a soldier reportedly broke a detainees leg with a baseball bat), blows and kicks to the face, chest, abdomen, and extremities, and repeated kicks to various parts of the detainees body; the application of chemical substances to exposed skin and eyes; forced stress positions, such as holding heavy water jugs with arms outstretched, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness; sleep deprivation; subjecting detainees to extremes of hot and cold; the stacking of detainees into human pyramids; and, the withholding of food (beyond crackers) and water.

....Detainees at FOB Mercury were held in so-called PUC tents....The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief for soldiers. Soldiers said they felt welcome to come to the PUC tent on their off-hours to Fuck a PUC or Smoke a PUC. Fucking a PUC referred to beating a detainee, while Smoking a PUC referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness.

The soldiers said that when a detainee had a visible injury such as a broken limb due to fucking or smoking, an army physicians assistant would be called to administer an analgesic and fill out the proper paperwork. They said those responsible would state that the detainee was injured during the process of capture and the physicians assistant would sign off on this. Broken bones occurred every other week at FOB Mercury.

Needless to say, not all of these detainees turned out to be guilty of anything. The New York Times reports that the Army has launched a criminal investigation and that high-ranking Senators are aware of the charges in the HRW report:

The 30-page report does not identify the troops, but one is Capt. Ian Fishback, who has presented some of his allegations in letters this month to top aides of two senior Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman, and John McCain of Arizona. Captain Fishback approached the Senators' offices only after he tried to report the allegations to his superiors for 17 months, the aides said.

According to Time magazine, Bill Frist is also aware of the charges. If you have the stomach for it, the full HRW report is here.

Kevin Drum 2:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TOP INTELLECTUALS....Foreign Policy has teamed up with the British magazine Prospect to produce a list of contenders for the title of world's top public intellectual, which is defined (approximately) as someone who has both considerable achievement in their field and considerable influence outside it. The initial list contains 100 names and you get to vote for five. The full list of 100 is here along with voting instructions.

As FP points out, the list "does not bear thinking about too closely." And indeed it doesn't, especially if, like me, you only recognize about half the names on the list in the first place, let alone have any real idea of their relative influence. Thus, in my best Malcolm Gladwell Blink style, here are my five votes:

  • E.O. Wilson

  • Amartya Sen

  • Vclav Havel

  • Daniel Kahnemann

  • Jared Diamond

I pretty much discounted people who are influential due primarily to their position (Benedict XVI, Ali al-Sistani) or to short term accomplishments like starting wars (Paul Wolfowitz). Plus, like other voters, I mostly avoided people I don't like, regardless of how smart or influential they are. Anybody I have personally mocked on this blog was also blackballed (Hitchens, Friedman).

I'm also supposed to come up with somebody who didn't make the list of 100 but should have. Hmmm. I think my choice is Cecil Adams.

A partial list of of other blogs weighing in is here.

Kevin Drum 8:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JUPITER!....Over at Obsidian Wings, Hilzoy is channeling the Medium Lobster:

When NASA announced Monday that it would be spending $100 billion to send people to the moon, I said: huh? Now? I have since concluded that it was announced so that it could be cut, with great fanfare. But if we're going to go in for gimmicks, why stop there? Why not announce that we're going to spend $500 trillion to send people to Jupiter, and then announce that we're going to realize huge savings by cutting that?

She's got more on the subject, but I suspect that Onion-esque passage tells more truth about the current fervor for budget cutting than any dozen white papers.

UPDATE: Actually, what all the recent budget cutting talk reminds me of is this old Onion headline: "Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others." It's mostly urban residents who favor cutting farm subsidies, the young who favor cutting Medicare, and the rich who favor cutting the social safety net. Remarkably few people seem to favor cutting government programs that actually affect them.

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By: Kevin Drum

CREAKING ALONG....For what it's worth, the Guardian claims that in private everyone wants to get out of Iraq:

Ambitions for Iraq are being drastically scaled down in private. A Foreign Office source said the goal of the US administration to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East had long ago been shelved. "We will settle for leaving behind an Iraqi democracy that is creaking along," the source said.

....The "drawdown" of troops would be done in stages, and the US wants to keep four air bases in Iraq. But this is not part of some strategic plan for mastery of the Middle East. The Foreign Office plays it down, saying the bases are less important than those in Gulf states such as Qatar and Bahrain. Like its other ambitions for Iraq, the US has scaled down this plan and Britain is happily backing it, in the hope of an early exit.

Personally, I'd be delighted at the prospect of a "democracy that is creaking along" in Iraq, but that's looking less likely all the time. Still, if it's true that the Americans want to withdraw and leave a few airbases, the British want to withdraw and leave a few airbases, and even Juan Cole wants to withdraw but leave a few airbases, maybe that's what we should do.

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By: Kevin Drum

AIRBUS....The LA Times reports that Airbus jets have had landing gear problems before:

The problems with JetBlue Flight 292 marked at least the seventh time that the front landing gear of an Airbus jet has locked at a 90-degree angle, forcing pilots to land commercial airliners under emergency conditions, according to federal records.

Cue wingnuts: the MSM is ignoring this problem because Airbus is a French company. If it had been a Boeing jet, the Blame America crowd would be all over it.

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KATRINATOWN UPDATE....In the LA Times this morning, Peter Gosselin and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar report that Newt Gingrich the closest thing the Republican party has to a serious policy wonk these days is pretty unhappy over the idea of building gigantic trailer parks for Hurricane Katrina evacuees:

"The idea that in a community where we could place people in the private housing market to reintegrate them into society we would put them in [trailer] ghettos with no jobs, no community, no future, strikes me as extraordinarily bad public policy, and violates every conservative principle that I'm aware of," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.

"If they do it," Gingrich said of administration officials, "they will look back on it six months from now as the greatest disaster of this administration."

I'm not so sure about that. After all, there's stiff competition in the "greatest disaster of this administration" race: just for starters, there's Tora Bora, disbanding the Iraqi army, and decimating FEMA in the first place. And don't forget Abu Ghraib and the torture memo fiasco.

In any case, the whole Katrinatown concept isn't going very well anyway, as the Washington Post reports today. Perhaps Congress will do its job this time and pass the Section 8 voucher plan that nearly everyone except George Bush seems to think is superior. This is definitely an administration that has shown it needs a bit of oversight.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SAUDIS PESSIMISTIC ON IRAQ....According to the New York Times, the Saudi foreign minister has gone public with his concerns that Iraq is spinning out of control:

"There is no dynamic now pulling the nation together," he said in a meeting with reporters at the Saudi Embassy here. "All the dynamics are pulling the country apart." He said he was so concerned that he was carrying this message "to everyone who will listen" in the Bush administration.

....Prince Saud said he met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week and added that American officials generally responded to his warnings by telling him that the United States successfully carried off the Iraqi elections and "they say the same things about the constitution" and the broader situation in Iraq now...."But what I am trying do is say that unless something is done to bring Iraqis together, elections alone won't do it. A constitution alone won't do it."

Part of this seems to be a shot across the bow, a warning from a leading official of a major Sunni state that any settlement in Iraq that marginalizes Sunnis is unacceptable. Beyond that, though, it's hard to say what Saud's motivation is, since he apparently didn't offer any concrete suggestions about what we should be doing differently aside from treating Sunnis better. The Associated Press adds this:

Saud said if U.S. troops pulled out now, Iraq would dissolve into civil war. He also said that while his country would like to send an ambassador to Baghdad, doing so would make the diplomat an immediate target for assassination.

"I doubt that he'd last a day," Saud said.

Saud also told reporters that high oil prices were due to a lack of refinery capacity, not a shortage of oil. However, as the AP laconically notes, the Saudis "have not explained why such a shortage would keep crude prices high if there was oil that couldn't find a refinery." That certainly strikes me as mysterious too.

Kevin Drum 12:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WINNING IN IRAQ....I think CNN missed the story today in their report on public sentiment toward Iraq:

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday indicated fewer than half of Americans believe the United States will win the Iraq war, and 55 percent of those surveyed said it should speed up withdrawal plans.

Only 21 percent said the United States definitely would win the war in Iraq, which began when a U.S.-led coalition invaded in 2003 to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Another 22 percent said they thought the United States probably would win.

Twenty percent of respondents said the United States was capable of winning in Iraq but probably would not. And 34 percent said they considered the war unwinnable.

If you add up the numbers, 63% of Americans think it's still possible for us to win in Iraq. And no matter what they tell pollsters, my guess is that anyone who thinks we're capable of winning the war won't trust a politician who advocates withdrawal. This is the Democratic dilemma in a nutshell, and it probably explains this Knight Ridder report:

Nationally known Democratic war critics, including Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and John Kerry of Massachusetts, won't attend what sponsors say will be a big anti-war rally Saturday in Washington.

For more on this, see Lorelei Kelly. As a conservative journalist told her today, "The liberals were pretty much right on Viet Nam. And what did that get them? They destroyed their reputation on national security for three decades." I have a feeling that's a widespread attitude.

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By: Kevin Drum

BREAKING NEWS....The lead story on the local Channel 2 news at 6 pm was a helicopter report a helicopter report! about a baby locked in a car. The baby was in no danger, police officers were there, and they were apparently just waiting for a locksmith to arrive and open the car.

I am not making this up.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON THE POOR....As it turns out, the Republican Study Committee's list of proposed spending cuts is aside from some humorous arithmetic errors mostly just a standard conservative wish list, and not a very serious one at that. What's more, as Joel Achenbach points out, a huge part of it is nothing more than the usual attacks on the poor, including a total (by my count) of $477 billion in Medicare/Medicaid cuts.

Achenbach also points out another conservative hobbyhorse that I noticed as well: "Verify Income of Earned Income Tax Credit Participants." Talk about a blast from the past! The EITC is a way of boosting the incomes of the working poor, one that actually works pretty well, so naturally it's been a conservative target for years. In the mid 90s, just after Newt Gingrich came to power and shortly before the famous IRS show trials orchestrated by Senator William Roth (short version: IRS agents = jackbooted thugs), Bill Clinton caved in to pressure from Republicans who were supposedly concerned about EITC "abuse" and approved a $100 million program to audit EITC recipients.

The result was predictable. As David Cay Johnston pointed out in Perfectly Legal, "In 1999, for the first time, the poor were more likely than the rich to have their tax returns audited. The overall rate for people making less than $25,000 was 1.35 percent, compared with 1.15 percent of returns filed by those making $100,000 or more."

There's nothing wrong with stopping genuine tax fraud, of course, but if you're going to do it, you should do it across the board and needless to say, if you're serious about stopping income tax abuse, it's the rich you should go after, not the working poor. After all, they're the ones with all the money. As Max Sawicky explains in this EPI briefing paper, EITC abuse costs at most $9 billion per year, compared to a tax gap of at least $250 billion from other sources. For some reason, though, the Republican Study Committee doesn't seem to think that increasing the IRS budget to go after that other $250 billion is worth thinking about.

Funny, isn't it? You'd almost think it was some kind of class warfare if it weren't for the fact that Republicans never engage in class warfare. Maybe somebody should ask them what their real reason is.

Kevin Drum 4:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PELOSI AND PORK....Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi has publicly committed to giving up some pork in her district and redirecting the money to Hurricane Katrina. Good for her.

On a cynical note, this is very smart politics, and other Democratic leaders should follow her example. Not only does it make Democrats look responsible while painting Republicans like Don Young and Tom Delay as craven looters of the public trust, but let's face it: none of these cuts are very likely to happen and even if they did pass, everyone knows the whole thing would die in the Senate. Getting on the anti-pork bandwagon is sort of a freebie that makes you look good with only a small risk of actually having to follow through. I'm surprised more Democrats haven't figured that out.

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DAVIS-BACON, ROUND 3....The Davis-Bacon "prevailing wage" debate continues! You're excited, aren't you?

Matt Yglesias argues that regardless of the merits of Davis-Bacon, scrapping it would hurt unions and in the long run strong unions are a key component of the liberal coalition as well as the only effective counterweight we have to the power of big business.

Mickey Kaus makes a number of arguments in reply. This seemed like the most persuasive one to me:

The real problem with laws like Davis-Bacon isn't that they make a few government buildings, highways, and levees, etc., a bit more expensive. It's that in combination with similar laws that apply to services, and with the civil service laws, and with misguided court decisions that impose special procedural obligations on government (e.g. before workers can be fired or public housing tenants evicted) they make the private sector more efficient than government at virtually anything both of them do. The result is a pervasive public cynicism about government efficacy that has done more to undermine the case against government action than union lobbying can ever do to support it.

This might be a convincing argument, but I wonder if it misses the point? I've long felt that public hostility to unions, and especially to public sector unions, is based not so much on their demands for higher pay as on their demands for byzantine and highly restrictive work rules. Most people aren't unwilling to pay teachers decently, for example, but they also think that teachers should be held accountable to a boss (just like they themselves are) and that it should be possible to fire bad teachers without five years of hearings and red tape.

Mickey appears to feel the same way, at least judging by the amount of space he devotes to work rules vs. pay levels in his argument. But Davis-Bacon applies solely to wage levels, doesn't it? Sure, construction unions have negotiated lots of work rules in their national contracts, but Davis-Bacon doesn't say anything about what those rules are or even whether employers have to deal with unions in the first place. It's just a list of required wage levels throughout the country. (For example, here are the "wage determinations" for Louisiana. The rate for a common laborer in Orleans Parish is $9.55.)

Now, Mickey also seems to think that unions are fundamentally a bad thing on economic grounds, and there we'll just have to disagree. But if the primary neoliberal argument against unionism especially public sector unionism is that it encourages archaic red tape and coddles lazy workers, then Davis-Bacon looks pretty good, doesn't it? After all, it's focused like a laser on just one thing: paying decent wages. What's wrong with that?

UPDATE: Apparently Democrats are pretty united in trying to overturn Bush's emergency suspension of Davis-Bacon. The Carpetbagger has the details.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CROWD TURNS UGLY....Robert Novak warns George Bush today that he is facing a Category 5 political hurricane:

For two full days, George W. Bush was bashed. He was taken to task on his handling of stem cell research, population control, the Iraq war and, especially, Hurricane Katrina. The critics were no left-wing bloggers. They were rich, mainly Republican and presumably Bush voters in the last two presidential elections.

The Bush-bashing occurred last weekend at the annual Aspen conference sponsored by the New York investment firm Forstmann Little & Co.

....Longtime participants in Forstmann Little conferences...told me they had not experienced such hostility against a Republican president at previous events. Yet, they were sure a majority of the guests had voted for Bush.

....U.S. News & World Report disclosed this week, with apparent disdain, that presidential adviser Karl Rove took time off from the Katrina relief effort to be at Aspen. He was needed as a counterweight. I settled in for serious fireworks, expecting Bush-bashers to assault his alter ego at the conference's final session. However, direct confrontation with a senior aide must have been more difficult than a remote attack on the president. It would be a shame if Rove returned to Washington without informing George W. Bush how erstwhile friends have turned against him.

Have they really turned against him? Are are they just letting off steam? I'd like to believe it's the former, but my gut tells me it's probably the latter.

I wonder how Republican fundraising is going right now?

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By: Kevin Drum

LOST....I was expecting to be disappointed, but I have to say that tonight's premier of Lost was terrific. Thumbs up!

No discussion here since there's probably someone in Hawaii or Denmark or the Amazon Basin or somewhere who hasn't seen it yet and doesn't want to read any spoilers. But feel free to chat in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WEDNESDAY KITTEN BLOGGING....I don't have any excuse for posting this picture except that it's my blog and I feel like it. It's nice to see both girl and kitten getting safely out of Galveston before Rita hits.

Besides, I used to have a cat named Tigger too. I'll bet a lot of people have.

NHC forecast of Rita's path is here.

Satellite map here.







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By: Kevin Drum

THE F-WORD....From Andrew Sullivan today:

"CORPORATIST CRONYISM": An arresting analysis of the Bush administration's governing "philosophy." More like Spain and Italy in the 1930s than anything resembling Anglo-American conservatism.

Um, did Sullivan just call Bush a fascist? Just curious....

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By: Kevin Drum

STORY'S STORY....On Tuesday, Louise Story wrote a front page article for the New York Times that identified a supposedly unnoticed trend in college life: "Many women at the nation's most elite colleges," she reported, "say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children."

Many people were, um, annoyed by this piece. Kieran Healy, for example, was annoyed on so many different levels that I lost count. Jack Shafer, however, noted that the real problem with this article was that whether or not its thesis was annoying, Story never actually demonstrated that it was true:

Story uses the particularly useful weasel-word "many" 12 times....None of these many's quantify anything. You could as easily substitute the word some for every many and not gain or lose any information. Or substitute the word few and lose only the wind in Story's sails. By fudging the available facts with weasel-words, Story makes a flaccid concept stand up as long as nobody examines it closely.

In fact, Shafer went too easy on Story. Not only was her piece weak and thinly documented, but the actual documentation she does provide indicates that there's no trend here at all.

Let's run the tape. Story bases her piece on an email she sent to 138 freshman and senior females at Yale (more details on that here). Here's what she found:

The interviews found that 85 of the students, or roughly 60 percent, said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely.

Shafer correctly notes that the results of a casual email survey are essentially meaningless, but leave that aside for the moment. Here's what Story tells us 14 paragraphs later:

According to a 2000 survey of Yale alumni from the classes of 1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994....Among the alumni surveyed who had reached their 40's, only 56 percent of the women still worked.

....A 2001 survey of Harvard Business School graduates found that 31 percent of the women from the classes of 1981, 1985 and 1991 who answered the survey worked only part time or on contract, and another 31 percent did not work at all, levels strikingly similar to the percentages of the Yale students interviewed who predicted they would stay at home or work part time in their 30's and 40's.

Why yes, 44% (not working) and 62% (not working or working part time) are indeed "strikingly similar" to 60% (planning to work part time or not at all). In other words, nothing whatsoever has changed in the past 25 years.

This leaves Story with only one thin remaining hook, something she tacitly admits in the 33rd paragraph: the possibility that Ivy League women talk about being stay-at-home moms more than they used to. And maybe they do, although there's no real evidence for that either, aside from a tiny collection of ambiguous quotes from Ivy League professors and administrators.

But even if this were true, it would hardly be Page 1 material, would it? For that you need the survey. And the survey demonstrates nothing at all.

UPDATE: Percentages modified to correct arithmetic brain fart.

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CHANGING COURSE IN IRAQ....I'm sorry, but this is just wrong. In the New York Times today, Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine captain, writes that although we can't afford to merely "stay the course" in Iraq, neither can we afford to precipitously pull out. Rather, we need another strategy:

The particulars of whatever strategy we decide to go with are, at this point, secondary. First, commitment to change must be made, and quickly.

This is absurd. As Fick himself observes, "history offers countless cautionary examples" regarding counterinsurgency, a statement that, if anything, understates the case. In fact, most large scale foreign counterinsurgencies have been miserable failures, which means that change merely for the sake of change is far more likely to fail than to succeed. Grabbing frantically at the first thing that sounds remotely reasonable, as Frick seems to do with Andrew Krepinevich's flawed but media-friendly plan, is a recipe for disaster.

Frick suggests that "There's no shortage of good alternatives waiting in the wings." Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is true, and that's the problem that needs to be addressed. Give us a good plan first, and then we can talk about change.

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NIP AND TUCK....Time to cut the fat!

Conservative House Republicans plan to recommend on Wednesday more than $500 billion in savings over 10 years to compensate for the costs of Hurricane Katrina as lawmakers continue to struggle to develop a consensus on the fiscal approach to the disaster.

At the top of a partial list...delaying the start of the new Medicare prescription drug coverage for one year to save $31 billion and eliminating $25 billion in projects from the newly enacted transportation measure....eliminating the Moon-Mars initiative that NASA announced on Monday, for $44 billion in savings.

...."What House conservatives will demonstrate through Operation Offset is that there is more than enough room in the federal budget to provide for the needs of the families affected by Katrina without raising taxes"....

Well, they've identified $100 billion so far. Only $400 billion to go!

Aside from the fact that I'm delighted to see Republicans screaming at each other over this, the whole spectacle is kind of sad. Could we save $500 billion over ten years? Of course we could. That's $50 billion a year, about 2% of the entire federal budget.

On the other hand, it also shows how ridiculous this whole exercise is. $50 billion in cuts would reduce federal spending from 19.8% of GDP to 19.4% of GDP. Yippee.

Still, we're supposed to offer ideas of our own around here, not merely be obstructionist. So here goes:

  • I note that farm subsidies somehow didn't make the short list from our hardy band of conservative Republicans. That could save about $20 billion per year or so. Of course, some of these brave fiscal warriors come from farm states....

  • Delay the Medicare prescription drug bill for one year? Pish and tosh. The current bill is projected to cost about $100 billion per year, and as near as I can tell about half of that has nothing at all to do with providing prescription drugs to seniors. It's just a steaming pile of corporate welfare and handouts to pharmaceutical companies. So I tell you what: hand over the bill to some serious healthcare policy analysts they'll have to be Democrats, I'm afraid, since Republicans don't have any left and I'm pretty sure they can cut the cost of this legislation by a third and actually improve its coverage at the same time.

  • Kill the F/A-22 Raptor. I think even President Bush agrees that the Raptor doesn't make much sense anymore. I don't have numbers off the top of my head, but this would probably save about $20 billion or so.

  • Raise taxes? Whoa, Nelly! But we could at least repeal a tax cut aimed exclusively at wealthy families that's scheduled to take effect in January. That would save about $200 billion over ten years.

  • Yes, the Moon-Mars mission could be scrubbed, and the highway bill earmarks could be repealed en masse. And while we're at it we might as well repeal the horrendous energy bill enacted a couple of months ago. That should add up to $100 billion or so.

Let's see....that totals up to roughly $800 billion or so over ten years. See how easy this is?

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NEW MATH....I'm confused. The LA Times tells me today that several local schools have failed the guidelines set down by the No Child Left Behind Act for seven consecutive years:

The federal No Child Left Behind education law gave schools seven years to meet achievement goals, laying out increasingly dire consequences including the removal of school staff for those that fell short.

But now, 10 schools have exceeded that seven-year timetable, leaving them in undefined territory and spawning renewed criticism by education officials about the fairness of the law.

....Federal education department officials said they were not concerned about the schools entering their eighth year of needing improvement, saying campus reforms take time....Schools exceeding the seven-year timetable are not in limbo but will remain in the restructuring phase until they can meet their testing targets for two consecutive years.

NCLB was passed in 2001. That's four years ago. So how can any school have missed NCLB's guidelines for seven straight years?

I'm sure there must be an answer of some kind, but Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin don't tell us what it is. Seems like maybe they should.

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BASRA....From the Guardian:

Plans to withdraw substantial numbers of British troops from Iraq next month have been abandoned after the explosion of violence in Basra on Monday night. The decision has dismayed military commanders, who are concerned about growing pressure on their soldiers.

....Senior defence officials admitted yesterday that far from improving, the security situation in southern Iraq might well get worse over the next few months. They referred in particular to the Mahdi army, a militia headed by the radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr.

....In July, the then commander of British forces in southern Iraq, Major General Jonathan Riley, predicted that Britain would hand over "two provinces, Maysan and al-Muthanna, this year and [the] other two [Dhi Qar and Basra] next year."

That hope was reflected in a secret memo sent by John Reid, the defence secretary, in July to cabinet colleagues. However, this is now regarded by military commanders and diplomats as hopelessly optimistic.

Hopelessly optimistic indeed.

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THE SINGULARITY....And now for something completely different. Really, really different.

A couple of weeks ago the nice folks at Kurzweil Technologies sent me a copy of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near. Kurzweil's thesis is pretty simple: he believes that the only thing standing in the way of genuine artificial intelligence is computing power. Right now, a $1,000 PC has enough computing power to emulate the brain of an insect, but once we increase that by about a billion times or so, we'll have a $1,000 computer with the power of a human brain. Given current doubling trends, that should happen in about 20 years. (You can read a more detailed version of this argument here.)

But there's more: once we have true intelligent machines, these machines will themselves create the next generation of machines. However, being machines, they'll do it way faster than we could. So we'll go from machines with the intelligence of a human to machines a million times smarter than humans in a very short time. This will shortly bring us to the Singularity, a point representing a "profound and disruptive transformation in human capability," which Kurzweil estimates will happen in 2045.

Now, it so happens that I didn't really need to read Kurzweil's book to learn this stuff, because I already think he's right. The basic hardware and software trends seem pretty indisputable to me, and the only serious arguments I've ever heard against the eventual development of genuinely intelligent machines all boil down to a thinly veiled belief that there just has to be something more to human intelligence than mere neurons and biochemistry. Well, no there doesn't. The pope's opinions notwithstanding, the evidence to date suggests that the brain really is just a biological computing device.

So that's that though feel free to argue the other side in comments. With that said, however, it turns out that I do have a bone to pick with Kurzweil over one of the trend charts that litter his book. Basically, he argues that the pace of change has been accelerating over time, so that major inventions are being created ever faster as time goes by. 10,000 years ago it took several thousand years between major inventions (agriculture --> wheel), while a century ago it took only a few decades (telephone --> computer).

Fine. But his cleverly constructed chart cheats: it stops about 30 years ago. So I decided to extend it. My version of his chart extends to last month (see pink shaded area), and it indicates that major, paradigm-busting inventions should be spaced about a week apart these days.

(Sorry for the lousy quality of the chart. It's a scan from the book. Futurist though Kurzweil may be, his publisher has apparently declined to join Amazon's "Search Inside" program, which would have allowed me to capture a clean copy of the chart right off the screen. He needs to have a word with them about this.)

So what gives? Seems to me that the Singularity should be right on our doorstep, not 40 years away. And while 40 years may not seem like all that much in the great scheme of things, it means a lot if you're 46 years old. Which I am.

So what happened?

UPDATE: Via email, Ray Kurzweil responds:

It isnt valid to extend a log-log plot. A progression is valid by showing exponential growth along a linear time axis, so a graph with a linear x (time) axis and a log y axis can be validly extended (provided of course that one has analyzed the paradigm being measured and shown that it will not saturate to an asymptote). So that is why I analyzed extensively the limits of matter and energy to support computation and communication, as well as the specific technologies that could support these densities including analysis of the heat and energy issues. And an exponential trend (a straight line on a plot with a linear time axis and a log y axis) or a double exponential (an exponential on a plot with linear time axis and a log y axis) does not reach a mathematical singularity but it does reach fantastic levels eventually.

So the point of the log-log plot is simply to show that a phenomenon has in fact accelerated in the past. It is not valid to extend the line. For one thing the log-log plot cannot go into the future because that is the nature of the log time axis. If one wanted to extend this trend, one should plot it on a linear time (x) axis showing exponential progression of the paradigm shift rate. I did that in another chart where I show the adoption times (for mass use) of communication technologies such as television, telephone up to cell phones, etc.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DAVIS-BACON REVISITED....Mickey Kaus thinks that Bruce Reed and I are wrong for criticizing George Bush's post-Katrina suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, a Hoover-era law that compels the government to pay "prevailing wages" for construction work. Is Mickey right? I'll be honest about this: the first time I had ever heard of the Davis-Bacon Act was on September 9, when I wrote the post in question. So I'm not exactly the go-to guy for a stirring defense of the AFL-CIO position on this subject.

Still, I have to take issue with this:

But isn't there a problem with new labor market entrants driving down wages (the problem Davis Bacon was designed to combat)? Sure. The answer is to limit immigration and pass a minimum wage law that applies across the board, not just to the jobs performed by entrenched construction unions. Now that you mention it, here's a possible grand bargain for actual New Democrats to propose to the GOPs: We'll abandon Davis-Bacon if you agree to raise the minimum wage. That would help low-wage workers across the board while making it possible for government to do more, more efficiently.

Well, sure. Raise the minimum wage to seven bucks an hour and index it to congressional salaries, and I might be willing to toss Davis-Bacon overboard in return. But I won't be laying awake at night waiting for Tom DeLay to offer up that deal. In fact, the mere act of blogging about it seems sort of quaint and old fashioned, like listening to my grandmother talk about how polite and well groomed popular singers used to be back in her day. Or something.

Bottom line: It's charming idea, but there's no one left in the Republican leadership to talk to about it. They just don't do the compromise thing anymore.

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EVACUATING NEW ORLEANS....One of the great and enduring mysteries about the aftermath of Katrina has been the Great Bus Question. Where were they? Why weren't they used to immediately evacuate the Superdome and the Convention Center? National Review posed this question vividly and tacitly placed the blame for the lack of buses on local officials, not FEMA by filling its cover with a famous photo of a fleet of New Orleans schoolbuses trapped and useless in three feet of water after the storm passed.

A couple of days ago, Michelle Millhollon of the Baton Rouge Advocate got Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco's side of the story:

Hours after the hurricane hit [Monday] Aug. 29, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a plan to send 500 commercial buses into New Orleans to rescue thousands of people left stranded on highways, overpasses and in shelters, hospitals and homes.

On the day of the storm, or perhaps the day after, FEMA turned down the state's suggestion to use school buses because they are not air conditioned, Blanco said Friday in an interview.

....The state had sent 68 school buses into the city on Monday. Blanco took over more buses from Louisiana school systems and sent them in on Wednesday, two days after the storm. She tapped the National Guard to drive them.

....On Wednesday, with the FEMA buses still not in sight, Blanco called the White House to talk to Bush and ended up speaking to Chief of Staff Andy Card....Card promised to get Blanco more buses.

...."I had security in the knowledge that there were 500 buses," she said. "Mike [Brown] had emphasized the buses to me personally. That was not my first concern until I realized that they were not there."

Meanwhile, the state continued to send school buses into the affected areas.

One of Blanco's aides, Leonard Kleinpeter, said FEMA told him at one point that the state could stop sending school buses because the agency was going to bring in helicopters and use them instead of the commercial buses that still weren't there.

Blanco told Kleinpeter to ignore those instructions.

Is this the straight dope? It's certainly free of any wiggle room if Blanco isn't telling the truth. Will we ever hear FEMA's side of this, or has that chance disappeared completely with Mike Brown's resignation?

Kevin Drum 5:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NORTH KOREA....Yesterday I was wondering how the conservosphere would react to the recently announced progress in talks with North Korea. After all, the Bush administration pretty much agreed to the same thing Clinton agreed to in 1994, and that's bad. On the other hand, it's Bush, so that must be good. What to think?

Apparently it really is confusing: Instapundit and Power Line and Michelle Malkin and Hugh Hewitt are mostly silent. That means we have to turn to Ed Morrissey to get our daily dose of hero worship. Here he takes the New York Times to task for not understanding the steely tactics that produced Monday's agreement:

If the New York Times wants to pretend it doesn't understand the purpose of our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Kim regime does not have that luxury. They understood that the Bush administration would not send Rice to Pyongyang to dance cheek to cheek with Kim, a la Madeline Albright, but to deliver an ultimatum that would result in his destruction. After testing the Bush administration several times and finding it unwilling to waver, even after a number of Bush's political opponents (such as John Kerry) fell for his tricks, Kim knows that Bush has him diplomatically isolated and left with no choice but compliance or war.

Italics mine. And now for the reality check. Here's what the news columns of the New York Times say about what really happened:

Several [Bush administration] officials, who would not allow their names to be used because they did not want to publicly discuss Mr. Bush's political challenges, noted that Mr. Bush is tied down in Iraq, consumed by Hurricane Katrina, and headed into another standoff over Iran's nuclear program. The agreement, they said, provides him with a way to forestall, at least for now, a confrontation with another member of what he once famously termed "the axis of evil."

...The debate over signing the agreement reflected the fact that the North Koreans drove a tough bargain. The agreement has the potential to generate good will for North Korea, increase the aid it receives and possibly reduce its incentive to dismantle its nuclear programs anytime soon.

....As this unfolded over the weekend, the Chinese increased pressure on the United States to sign or take responsibility for a breakdown in the talks.

"At one point they told us that we were totally isolated on this and that they would go to the press," and explain that the United States sank the accord, the senior administration official said.

The North Koreans "drove a tough bargain." The Chinese told us to sign the agreement or "they would go to the press." Bush wasn't happy, but since he was bogged down with other problems he grabbed at the chance to "forestall, at least for now, a confrontation."

Yep, that's some steely negotiating. After all, the North Koreans got nothing out of this deal except for every single thing they've ever asked for.

Overall, I'm with Winston Churchill: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." Bush made the right decision to show some flexibility here, regardless of whether this agreement ultimately goes anywhere. But make no mistake: there was no ultimatum on our side. Quite the contrary.

Kevin Drum 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FUN AND GAMES AT THE FDA....Last month, in protest over the FDA's politicized decision to override its scientific staff regarding the Plan B "morning after" pill, Susan Wood resigned. She had been director of the Office of Women's Health.

A week ago she was replaced by a male veterinarian. Really. Emails were sent out, he was apparently listed on a Health and Human Services directory as the acting director of the office, and various witnesses say he was introduced to the staff and "even had some one-on-one discussions with staff members about future plans."

Apparently, though, it was all just a joke or something. A few days later the FDA officially announced that the new acting director would be Theresa Toigo. And the vet? Never heard of him. No idea why anyone thought he was taking over.

Always good to see the federal bureaucracy taking its job seriously.

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ IN A NUTSHELL....Brad Plumer notes the following from a Time magazine article about U.S. problems in Iraq:

None of the intelligence officers who spoke with Time or their ranking superiors could provide a plausible road map toward stability in Iraq....Yet, despite their gloom, every one of the officers favors continuing indeed, augmenting the war effort.

Brad notes pithily: "This whole thing seems deeply, deeply fucked." Yes it does.

On a related note, the BBC reports that the British Ministry of Defense claims to have "negotiated" the release of a pair of undercover servicemen in Basra who were accused of shooting at Iraqi police, but according to the Iraqis this "negotiation" involved six tanks that demolished a wall of the jail and allowed 150 prisoners to escape. Earlier, two tanks sent to the jail had been set afire by an angry mob.

Until recently, Basra has been relatively calm. No longer.

UPDATE: CNN got this statement from an unnamed Iraqi official about their side of the story:

The official said two unknown gunmen in full Arabic dress began firing on civilians in central Basra, wounding several, including a traffic police officer. There were no fatalities, the official said.

The two gunmen fled the scene but were captured and taken in for questioning, admitting they were British marines carrying out a "special security task," the official said.

I guess there's no telling yet who's lying and who's not, but I think the Ministry of Defense is going to have to offer a little more detail about what these guys were up to.

Kevin Drum 2:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NEXT FEMA....One of the reasons FEMA failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is that it had suffered from four years of the Bush administration's signature commitment to cronyism combined with its signature contempt for serious policy development. Needless to say, though, this attitude toward governance affects everything the administration touches, not just FEMA. So where are we likely to see the next serious federal meltdown?

The Treasury Department seems like a good guess, especially because its decline is so obvious that it has united both liberals and conservatives in consternation. Here is the liberal Paul Krugman writing about the lack of policy expertise at Treasury:

Less obvious to the public is the hollowing out of the department's expertise. Many experienced staff members have left since 2000, and a number of key positions are either empty or filled only on an acting basis. "There is no policy," an economist who was leaving the department after 22 years told The Washington Post, back in 2002. "If there are no pipes, why do you need a plumber?" So the best and brightest have been leaving.

And here is the conservative Bruce Bartlett saying the same thing:

Today, Treasury has fallen on hard times....Most of the key sub-Cabinet positions are vacant, and it appears that the administration is having great difficulty filling these positions.

....This is really quite amazing, because normally Treasury has no trouble attracting very high quality people for its senior positions....[But] people want to work at Treasury to do what the department historically does develop tax and financial policy, manage exchange rates and other international economic issues, and be the administration's principal liaison to Wall Street. Giving speeches to high school students and being forced to implement policies that Treasury had little say in developing just isn't as interesting.

....The problem is that we have a Treasury Department for a reason. It fulfills a necessary governmental function even in a minimalist state. One of these days, we may have some sort of financial crisis that will demand the full use of Treasury's expertise. I just hope there is someone there to answer the phone when that day comes.

Of course, we can always hope there won't be a crisis in the next three years. In fact, as Brad DeLong notes, there appears to be at least a 50% chance that there won't be.

The other 50% has me a little edgy, though.

Kevin Drum 1:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PAYING FOR KATRINA....Is cutting pork out of the budget a good way of offsetting the cost of Hurricane Katrina? A couple of days ago I suggested a wholesale obliteration of earmarks in the recent highway bill, and the Porkbusters project attempts to take this even further though apparently it does this by using as its definition of pork, "any program I don't like."

Fair enough, I suppose, although as Chris Nolan points out, things like the proposed seismic retrofit of the Golden Gate Bridge are pretty defensible on the grounds that having the Golden Gate Bridge tumble into the sea would be a pretty bad thing for the entire country, not just the coddled masses of Marin County.

What's more, as Mark Schmitt points out, even if you tally up everything on the Porkbusters list, it doesn't add up to much. In fact, he approves of their efforts because he hopes "it will provide participants with an education in the actual insignificance of domestic discretionary spending." He's right. The "Big Four" Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, and interest on the national debt account for about two-thirds of the federal budget, and in practical terms they just aren't going to get cut in the near term. It's not impossible to find cuts in the remaining third of the budget, of course, but it's mostly small stuff and as the chart on the right shows, discretionary domestic spending is hardly out of control anyway. It's been declining for decades, and despite the best efforts of the Bush administration it's lower today than it was 35 years ago. Unless you're willing to take a huge axe to the social safety net and fess up that you just don't care about the poor, it's pretty hard for even a group of conservatives to agree on any significant cuts. (Though the same is not true of individuals, of course. All they have to do is recommend cuts in programs they don't personally care about and presto! All done!)

The bottom line is simple: as much as we're all in favor of cutting unnecessary spending, spending is just not a big problem right now. The simple fact is that total federal spending is about 20% of GDP, the same as it was 30 years ago.

Thanks to George Bush's tax cuts, however, revenues are lower than they've been since the 1950s. So if you're really serious about paying for Katrina reconstruction, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has the answer: repeal of a pair of tax cuts scheduled to go into effect in January that are aimed exclusively at families with high incomes (97% of the benefit goes to families with incomes over $200,000). What's more, this windfall is solely a creature of Congress. President Bush never asked for it.

Well off families have already gotten plenty of tax cuts in the past four years. They can do without another one, and repealing these two measures would save an estimated $197 billion. It's not a tax increase, since it would leave current law just as it is, and it would save enough to pay for Katrina without blowing an even bigger hole in the budget than we already have. Responsible conservatives should give this their blessing.

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FRITOS....For the first time in my life, I have just read the ingredients list on a bag of Fritos. Here it is:

Whole corn, corn oil, and salt

I don't get it. If that's all that's in them, how is it that Fritos taste nothing like corn?

Kevin Drum 11:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RESTORING HONOR AND DIGNITY TO THE WHITE HOUSE....Are Scottish golf trips the new three-martini lunch? Regular readers know all about superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Scottish golf trips he was fond of handing out to favored folks like Republican congressmen Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, both of whom (of course) claim they had no idea that Abramoff was the funding source behind these "working vacations" of theirs.

David Safavian, who served as chief of staff at the General Services Administration from 2002-2004, is now in some Scottish hot water of his own. In fact, he was arrested today:

The Justice Department announced that Safavian "allegedly aided a Washington, D.C., lobbyist in the lobbyist's attempts to acquire GSA-controlled property in and around Washington, D.C.," and that Safavian joined the lobbyist on a Scotland golf trip.

Needless to say, "lobbyist" in this announcement = Jack Abramoff.

And what has Safavian been doing since 2004? Why, he's been the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, an arm of the White House Office of Management and Budget. That sounds like a perfect spot for a friend of Jack Abramoff's, doesn't it?

Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 5:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ELECTION REFORM....Jimmy Carter and James Baker have teamed up to recommend changes to the way we vote. Among other things, their final report recommends that "Congress require the political parties to hold four regional presidential primaries in election years rather than allowing states to hold primaries whenever they wish."

Excellent! That sounds like a great idea to me. But wait. There's an asterisk:

In presidential election years, after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, the other states should hold regional primaries and caucuses at monthly intervals in March, April, May and June, with the order rotated.

....The commission said it was worthwhile for Iowa and New Hampshire to continue to vote first because "they test the candidates by genuine retail, door-to-door campaigning."

Look. I know that Iowa and New Hampshire are hellbent on keeping their status as early bellwethers. But can we face facts? It's the 21st century and America has a population of nearly 300 million. Presidential elections aren't decided by "genuine retail, door-to-door campaigning" any longer. Like it or not, they just aren't.

Party leaders are idiots for giving in to this kind of nostalgia. If you want to win, you don't want a candidate who's good at "genuine retail, door-to-door campaigning." You want a candidate who can kick ass with the national press, raise a ton of money, and run a campaign that appeals to tens of millions of people who will never see you except on the evening news and a few TV commercials.

You don't like that? You think it sounds too cynical? So do I. But it's time to get over ourselves. Modern elections are big, media-centric affairs, and successful candidates are ones who are comfortable there. It's time to grow up.

Kevin Drum 3:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CRONYISM....Mike Brown had no emergency management qualifications aside from being a friend of a friend of George Bush, but he was made deputy director and then director of FEMA anyway. That didn't work out so well.

Karl Rove has, if anything, negative qualifications for the job of overseeing Katrina reconstruction. It's not just that he's never done anything like this before, it's the fact that a reputation as the most ruthless partisan operative of his generation is precisely the qualification you most want to avoid. "Squeaky clean" is what you should be looking for here.

And as Al Kamen reported a few days ago, the "on-again, off-again rumor that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card is moving to be secretary of the treasury to replace John Snow appears to be on again." Card, of course, has no relevant experience in finance, taxation or any of Treasurys other responsibilities. As a conservative reader pointed out in email, "If an international financial crisis should hit on his watch, God help us."

Has it really gotten to the point where it's impossible for Bush to find solid, conservative appointees for these positions who have actual experience in the relevant fields? Aren't there any left who are still willing to work for him? Or does he feel so besieged by life that he literally feels he can't trust anyone with a big job unless they've spent a couple of years working within a few feet of him?

Kevin Drum 2:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NORTH KOREA....Is it just me, or has the blogosphere been remarkably silent about the breakthrough in talks with North Korea? Granted, the devil is in the details, and there's no telling whether the vague statements in today's agreement will translate quickly into a detailed and verifiable treaty that includes full denuclearization. But still. It's pretty big news for a blogosphere that's generally obsessed with stuff like this.

Question: Does Condi Rice have anything to do with the change in the U.S. direction? This story says she was "in close contact all weekend with the chief U.S. negotiator." Was she able to convince George Bush to agree to a nonagression pact where Colin Powell wasn't?

What do the neocons think of this? Are they pissed?

Are conservative bloggers avoiding the story because they don't want to admit that Bush caved in on issues he said he would never cave in on? Are liberal bloggers avoiding it because, after all, it will be a considerable success for the Bush administration if it pans out?

Where's the chatter?

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HURRICANE RITA.... Maybe this is something, maybe it's not, but a reader sent me this map showing a variety of computer projections for the path of Tropical Storm Rita, currently off the coast of Florida and gaining strength. The official forecast from the National Hurricane Center shows it making landfall off the Texas coast, but their forecast is an outlier. Other projections suggest it will jog north and hit Louisiana. If it does, it will likely make landfall on Friday as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane.

Like I said, it might be nothing. But if there's even a 10% chance of it passing near New Orleans, that strikes me as a pretty good reason to go slow on encouraging residents to come back.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABRIDGED BLOGGING....Via Foreign Policy Watch: Shorter Pervez Musharraf.

Via Legal Fiction: Shorter Power Line.

Via Nate Nance: Shorter Jeff Sessions.

They read 'em so you don't have to.

Kevin Drum 2:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NORTH KOREA BLINKS?....This is via email, but there ought to be a link soon:

BEIJING (AP) - North Korea pledged to drop its nuclear weapons development and rejoin international arms treaties in a unanimous agreement Monday with other countries at arms talks, in the first-ever joint statement after more than two years of negotiations.

The North "promised to drop all nuclear weapons and current nuclear programs and to get back to the (Nuclear) Nonproliferation Treaty as soon as possible and to accept inspections" by the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to the agreement by the six countries at the talks.

"All six parties emphasized that to realize the inspectable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the target of the six-party talks," the statement said.

The North and United States also pledged in the agreement to respect each other's sovereignty and right to peaceful coexistence.

"This is the most important result since the six-party talks started more than two years ago," said Wu Dawei, China's vice foreign minister.

Damn. I want to hear more about what North Korea actually agreed to, and I also want to hear more about what the United States agreed to. Is this a genuine agreement, or merely an agreement about what the "target" of the talks is?

If this is on the level, it's great news. It would also be a terrific accomplishment for the Bush administration. They could use one.

UPDATE: Link to a more detailed version of the AP dispatch is here. It adds that "The United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade (North Korea) with nuclear or conventional weapons," something the U.S. has been unwilling to promise in the past. It also indicates that there are still some unresolved issues.

Still, it sounds like good news.

UPDATE 2: From an unnamed diplomat: "The only problem is all this is an agreement. And that's a very good step but at the same time, we've had agreements before and it's not always gone forward. It's working out the details. It's one thing saying 'yes, we'll agree to this' but I'm sure there will be an awful lot of wrangling still."

Cautious optimism seems to be the general reaction. But why did the U.S. finally accede to a nonagression promise? We've never been willing to agree to that before.

Kevin Drum 12:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DISINGENUOUS RHETORIC....Shakespeare's Sister sez:

Americans on the Left and the Right, any who arent blind ideologues, have a natural distaste for disingenuous rhetoric clearly designed to appeal to a crowd they havent previously; its the worst kind of artificial politicking....

I don't know about that. If my reading of history is any guide, I'd say that Americans have a disturbingly healthy appetite for disingenuous rhetoric. It just can't sound like disingenuous rhetoric. As long as the acting job is tolerable, though, it seems to work pretty well.

Kevin Drum 12:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TRUTH TELLING....Via Ethan Zuckerman, here is Jay Rosen's comparison of the mainstream media and the blogosphere:

Jay believes that blogs became such a powerful force in political discourse because political journalism is so constrained. Journalists cant evaluate truth claims bloggers can. Journalists arent permitted (or dont permit themselves) to go beyond the usual suspects bloggers can and do. Journalists have to represent themselves as free of political bias bloggers dont and are transparent about their biases.

Jay believes that by 2000, political journalists were incapable of truth telling. Bloggers could tell the truth, and therefore become powerful.

I just don't get this. It's true that American journalists don't generally evaluate truth claims, and it's true that bloggers generally do. But who cares? This only matters if the blogosphere's collective evaluation actually gets at the truth.

In the field of science, for example, there is a long established and widely accepted methodology for evaluating the truth of a claim. It doesn't work perfectly, but history shows that over the long run it works pretty well. Claims that become well accepted by the scientific community really are the ones that are true.

Despite the best efforts of the philosophical and political communities over the past several millennia, however, no such method has arisen for non-scientific questions. So while present day reporters may not do all that well at getting at the truth, neither did reporters in the pre-objectivity era. Neither do reporters in Europe, who don't generally subscribe to American notions of neutral journalism. Neither does talk radio. And neither do bloggers. The blogosphere has several attributes that give it great power primarily size and speed but in terms of truth telling it's not really doing anything that hasn't been done before.

So enough with the triumphalism. Besides, if Instapundit, Power Line, and Michelle Malkin are the truth tellers of our age well, just hand me a copy of the Washington Post and a stiff Scotch to go along with it. The end of western civilization is closer than I thought.

POSTSCRIPT: I have a long list of complaints about the MSM, one that's probably not all that different from Jay's, but let's face it: most of these criticisms date from about 1700, not 2000. The rise of the blogosphere in 2000 was pretty clearly due to a combination of (a) technology and (b) sufficient leisure time to create a blogging class. If the internet had arisen in the 30s, there would have been bloggers in the 30s. It had nothing to do with an allegedly terminal decline of the MSM in the suspiciously convenient year of 2000.

And now, all of you can take advantage of the power of blogs and instantly tell me I'm wrong. Comments are open. Take that, MSM!

Kevin Drum 11:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ELECTION RESULTS FROM GERMANY....Germany's conservatives have done surprisingly poorly in today's elections:

The first exit polls from Infratest Dimap put the CDU at 35.5 percent, slightly ahead of the SPD at 34 percent. The liberal Free Democrats, the preferred coalition partner of Angela Merkel's CDU, had 10.5 percent of the vote while the Greens, the current coalition partner of the SPD, had 8.5 percent. The Left Party were close behind with 7.5 percent.

As recently as six weeks ago the CDU was ahead of SPD by 15+ points in the polls, and they were still ahead by nearly 10 points on the eve of the election (see chart here). A 1.5% victory would be a huge disappointment and, more importantly, will probably not give them enough seats to form a government with their FDP partners. The wild card in all this is the newly formed Left party, a coalition of former communists and SPD supporters unhappy with welfare reforms, which stole votes from both the major parties.

And that, happily, pretty much exhausts my knowledge of German politics. However, if you're interested in keeping tabs on the vote count, updated results from Deutsche Welle are here.

UPDATE: Preliminary official results show that the election was even closer than the exit polls indicate: CDU won 225 seats to SPD's 222. It's anyone's guess which side will successfully form a government.

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RETURNING TO NEW ORLEANS....The federal government and the mayor of New Orleans are at odds about how safe it is to return to New Orleans:

"The return of the general population to the city of New Orleans is problematic," [Thad] Allen, the Coast Guard's chief of staff, said in an interview....Water, sewage and electrical systems are unable to "meet the basic needs of the businesses and residents who return."

....With horrifying images of the hurricane aftermath beamed around the world, Nagin acknowledged Thursday that he was getting pressure to move more quickly. He ebulliently announced a plan to let as many as 180,000 people in within a week, saying, "We're bringing New Orleans back. It's a good day in New Orleans. The sun is shining."

Gotta go with the feds on this one. The "toxic soup" thing may have been overblown, but that doesn't mean everything is hunky dory. As the LA Times reported yesterday, "environmental officials Friday strongly warned people to avoid all contact with the mud and muck left behind by receding floodwaters because it contains unsafe levels of petroleum products and bacteria." And while the sun may have been shining on Thursday, Nagin might have pointed out that hurricane season isn't over in New Orleans. We're not likely to get another Katrina, but even a normal storm could cause a lot of damage in New Orleans' current fragile state.

If business owners want to start the process of rebuilding, that's fine. But encouraging a mass migration back to the city strikes me as foolhardy. Nagin should knock off the PR shilling and listen to the experts on this one.

Kevin Drum 12:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TOUCHY....One gets used to idiocy from Michelle Malkin, but this really has to take the cake: a gleefully posted photograph of....Arianna Huffington tooling around San Francisco in an SUV! Not an SUV she owns, mind you, and not even an SUV she rented. An SUV that someone else sent to pick her up at the airport.

That's pathetic. If this is the best example of hypocrisy Malkin's sleuths can find, Arianna must live the life of a saint. Then, to demonstrate an even higher level of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Malkin called the Sierra Club, which sent the car, to ask about it:

I asked [Sierra Club national spokesman Eric] Antebi whether any of the staff at the Sierra Club headquarters owned and drove SUVs. He stumbled and said the group didn't keep track of who drove what. It's "a personal decision," he explained. "People drive different cars for different reasons."

Well, um, exactly. Now, wouldn't it be nice if these anti-SUV green busybodies took the same attitude towards the rest of us and left our car choices alone?!

People who drive SUVs sure are touchy, aren't they? You'd almost think they felt guilty about something. I wonder what their objection is to a private organization spending privately raised money to promote behavior that will lessen our dependence on Saudi oil? Seems downright conservative to me.

Kevin Drum 11:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Leon Fuerth

This is my final post here. Many thanks to Kevin Drum and the Washington Monthly for having me as a guest this week. One last word on bipartisanship, blame and Katrina. As Kevin said a few days ago, while the lions share of the responsibility begins and ends at the Federal level, theres also plenty of blame to go around for Democratic politicians at the city and state level. The President and Congress don't want to get to the bottom of what happened, since that would only reveal their collective failure to exercise foresight. We need an independent commission to investigate, if there is going to be accountability for the past and better planning for the future.

But a system that doesnt think forward cant plan forward. As reconstruction proceeds along the Gulf Coast, we need to ask whether we are just going to protect against lessons-learned, or against lessons-anticipated; whats likely to happen in the future. Global warming, rising sea-levels, increasing frequency and severity of storms are examples of the latter.

Other forces are gathering in the world. Read the National Science Foundations reports on the social, economic and physiological effects of onrushing new sciences and technologies, such as nanotechnology, genetics, and informatics, for a wake-up call about what is perhaps only twenty years away. Twenty years seems long for us individuals, but is not much time at all for us as a society to think about where we are going and how to shape the outcomes. In a democracy, we need time to register emerging issues; time to debate what to do about them; and time to do it.

The breathing spaces between major shocks are getting ever shorter we need to anticipate them rather than just react to them. We have the analytic capacity to think about these things, but our political leadership doesnt use it. For that to happen, we need a public which will push leaders to take the risk of preparing for problems early on, when it counts. I think blogs and blogging can be a part of that public argument, and would appreciate your comments as to how this might work.

Leon Fuerth 9:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FOOTBALL UPDATE....Jeez, USC only needed eight plays to score four touchdowns in the first quarter against Arkansas. They're running a clinic out there.

It's 42-10 at the half. I have a feeling the Trojans are going to beat the point spread.

UPDATE: Final score: 70-17. The point spread took a serious shellacking tonight.

Kevin Drum 12:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 17, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

EATING LIBERALLY....Just a reminder: my impromptu Los Angeles get-together at the Farmer's Market is still on. So far, it looks like about a dozen people are going to show up, but the more the merrier. If you're an LA blogger, commenter, or reader, feel free to drop by. Here are the details:

Where: Farmer's Market, 3rd and Fairfax
Meeting Place: The upstairs seating area above Magee's Kitchen
When: Sunday at noon

Feel free to come early, come late, stay as long as you want, and leave whenever you need to. Everyone is welcome.

Parking note for those not familiar with the Farmer's Market: there's an outdoor parking lot next to the Farmer's Market, but it's usually full. However, right next door to the Farmer's Market (on the east) is an outdoor mall called The Grove, and it has an enormous parking structure that never fills up. The Farmer's Market merchants won't validate parking tickets from the structure, but it only costs a dollar or two for a few hours. Your best bet is to park there and then walk. It's only a hundred yards or so.

A map of the Farmer's Market is below.


Kevin Drum 5:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KATRINATOWNS....The Washington Post has an informative story today about "FEMA City," a trailer park set up after Hurricane Charley that's similar to the "Katrinatowns" FEMA is apparently planning to set up along the Gulf Coast. The basic problem is that some of the towns ravaged by Charley didn't rebuild their low-income housing because not to put too fine a point on it they didn't especially want their low-income residents back. Thus the trailer park is nearly as full today as it was a year ago and is becoming a pretty grim place.

The housing problem caused by Katrina is so massive that I imagine it will require multiple solutions, and unfortunately, trailer parks are probably one of them. But things like Section 8 vouchers ought to be used a lot more aggressively, and it's disturbing that President Bush and his advisors don't seem to be thinking about this.

As for what they are thinking about, Mark Schmitt expands on an idea that also popped into my head several days ago. As usual, he says, it's all about demonizing the opposition:

Ask yourself, what do you think Rove is thinking about right now? My guess: The 2006 election, and specifically, how they can set up a situation in which Democrats vote against or seem to oppose some sort of Gulf Coast reconstruction package.

Based on the barrage of totally outrageous things we've seen so far, including not just the Davis-Bacon and Service Act suspensions, but also the move to create a backdoor school voucher system, I suspect they're planning a replay of the Department of Homeland Security setup, where their insistence on exempting the department from ordinary civil service rules, and Democrats' predictable unwillingness to go along with that, basically gave them the 2002 congressional elections by letting them portray Dems like Max Cleland as putting union interests above national security.

....I doubt that the vision dancing through Rove's head right now is of a thriving, rebuilt New Orleans, full of life and hope. He's probably imagining an ad with dark music, pictures of ruined houses, and a narrator saying, "Bill Nelson and Ted Kennedy put the liberal union bosses ahead of rebuilding the Gulf Coast..."

Read the whole thing for more, including Mark's suggestion about how to fight this. The first step, of course, is to realize that, yes, this kind of approach is unthinkable, but no, that doesn't mean they won't do it. The time to fight back against it is now, before it picks up steam.

Kevin Drum 3:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOGS AND THE MSM....Is this something new? Or have I just not noticed it before? Apparently every Washington Post story now includes an inline box that lists all the blog posts that have linked to it. As usual, Technorati seems to be unaware of my existence, but it's an interesting idea anyway.

What's next? A comment section for news stories? The possibilities for abuse are pretty mind boggling, I admit, but I still think one of the major national dailies ought to try it. Assuming they didn't just slit their throats after the first few days of abuse, reporters could probably learn a lot from the instant feedback they'd get from a comment thread.

Kevin Drum 3:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOGLE DESKTOP....Thanks to Cameron in comments, I decided to give Google Desktop another try on Thursday. Regular readers will remember that I gave up on it several months ago because its indexing functions caused so much hard drive thrashing that my PC froze up several times a day.

The new version seems to work much better on that score, but I don't know if that's because the software itself is better or because I added half a gigabyte of memory to my machine a few weeks ago. A controlled comparison is no longer possible. In any case, it doesn't seem to freeze my PC anymore, so I'm happy on that score.

What prompted me to try it again is that Beta 2 has a new feature: it allows you to do a normal Google web search that includes only sites you've visited in the past few days. (I think this is a new feature, anyway. I sure didn't notice it the first time around.) Web history searches show up as part of your overall search results, and you can also click a link to narrow down the search to only web history results:

More screenshots describing other Google Desktop features are here. I haven't checked them all out, and I'm not using the Google sidebar, but it looks like there's a lot of handy stuff there.

But the web history search is what really sucked me in. I scan hundreds of web pages a day while I'm writing the blog, and I'm forever trying to remember where I saw something a day or two ago. This should give me a quick and handy way of augmenting my increasingly faulty biological memory banks. Thanks Google.

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BROOKS ON ROBERTS....It's safe to say that Rosa Ehrenreich Brooks is a considerably more reliable liberal than I am. Tactical compromise is not her usual cup of tea. I was thus surprised to see today that she and I largely agree about how liberals ought to view the John Roberts hearings:

John G. Roberts Jr. emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings as practically the only person who did not look like an ideologue or a blithering idiot.

....Still, the official liberal response appears to be that we shouldn't believe anything Roberts says because he'll say anything to get confirmed.

The cynics have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Think about it: Unless Roberts is captured on television kicking a wheelchair-bound hurricane victim, he's going to be confirmed, and we knew this well before the hearings began. He had no particular incentive to make nice to the Democrats on the committee and he could have made far more stridently conservative statements, with little consequence.

Yet he chose, on the whole, to be conciliatory and nonconfrontational, making a surprising number of statements that even appeared to confound some on the far right.

....It's a question of picking one's battles. By waxing hysterical about Bush's surprisingly non-horrendous court choice, liberal interest groups are only playing into the hands of the GOP right, which is always eager for opportunities to paint liberals as shrill, negative and out of touch with mainstream America.

Brooks is a law professor, and perhaps this gives her more respect for Roberts's legal acumen and high ABA rating than it should. Still, she has a point. Roberts was rather clearly a shoo-in for confirmation, but despite that and despite setting a whole new standard in nonresponsiveness under questioning he did make at least a few brief comments that should be unnerving to social conservatives and economic conservatives alike. I don't share Brooks's hope that Roberts may turn out to be another David Souter, but I suspect she may have a point when she says he is "probably less extreme than any of the alternatives waiting in the wings."

Which is scary all by itself. Still, the fact remains that Roberts was a done deal almost as soon as he was nominated. If Antonin Scalia can get confirmed 99-0, what chance is there of making a dent in a guy like Roberts?

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Leon Fuerth

Some commenters think that Republicans cant be far-sighted, and they didnt like it when I said that far-sightedness is a bipartisan issue. Fair enough, up to a point. But only up to a point. I dont like much of what the Republican Party wants to do, but I think were smarter to look for allies than to assume they arent there. The stakes are too high.

koreyel asked some questions the other day that Id like to pick up on. Are all governments short-sighted, and are there examples of government that are not? Are democracies especially prone to myopia, and are lobbyists the heart of the problem?

My take: not all governments are short-sighted all the time or about all the issues. FDRs plans for the United Nations were very long-range. Democracies definitely have a bias towards the short term because thats the way political incentives are set up. But democracies are much more likely to permit and even encourage farsighted insights and policies than are other systems, which lock error in place without hope of change.

The problem is less with lobbyists than with public attitudes. This is good news: lobbyists never change their message but the public sometimes changes its mind. And this is the other message that seems to be coming from the commenters to my earlier posts. Were not going to get longer range action until the general public starts telling politicians to pay attention to the longer term.

Leon Fuerth 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DITHERING DURING THE FLOOD....One of the mysteries of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is why George Bush and his aides dithered so long about sending active duty military troops to New Orleans. The New York Times, for example, reported that administration officials, "weighing legalities and logistics, proceeded at a deliberate pace." This dithering apparently lasted for at least two days and possibly three or four at the height of the crisis.

Today, Knight Ridder weighs in with more on this:

Two days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, President Bush went on national television to announce a massive federal rescue and relief effort.

But orders to move didn't reach key active military units for another three days.

Once they received them, it took just eight hours for 3,600 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., to be on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi with vital search-and-rescue helicopters.

So the military was ready to go. All they needed were orders. But what about all those legal issues, like Posse Comitatus and the Insurrection Act?

In a 1996 Pentagon report, the Department of Defense acknowledged its large role in major disasters. Between 1992 and 1996, the Pentagon provided support in 18 disasters and developed five training manuals on how to work with FEMA and civilians in natural disasters.

.... "To say I've suddenly discovered the military needs to be involved is like saying wheels should be round instead of square," said Michael Greenberger, a law professor and the director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security.

.... Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, who served under President Clinton, believes that the Bush administration is mistaken if it thinks there are impediments to using the military for non-policing help in a disaster.

"When we were there and FEMA was intact, the military was a resource to us," said Witt. "We pulled them in very quickly. I don't know what rule he (Bush) talked about....We used military assets a lot."

Jamie Gorelick, the deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration who also was a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terror attacks, said clear legal guidelines have been in place for using the military on U.S. soil since at least 1996, when the Justice Department was planning for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

"It's not like people hadn't thought about this," Gorelick said. "This is not new. We've had riots. We've had floods. We've had the loss of police control over communities.

"I'm puzzled as to what happened here," she said.

This is why you need experienced disaster professionals running an agency like FEMA: they know what needs to be done, they know what advice to give and when to give it, and they know how to get the federal machinery moving in a hurry. It's also why you don't appoint old college friends to run FEMA and why you don't replace the top ranks of the agency with political operatives. I wonder if Bush has finally learned that lesson?

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

POST-KATRINA CAT BLOGGING....Here's a rare photo of Inkblot and Jasmine hanging out together in a rare moment of harmony. California sunshine does that to them occasionally.

And though it may seem as if the camera angle makes size comparisons unfair, this picture actually gives a pretty good idea of how they match up to each other. In fact, Inkblot looks even bigger when he's sprawled out in his beached killer whale pose. She's still the dominant one, though, even if she does wisely keep her distance most of the time.

For some further kitten blogging, head over to Fiat Lux. She's got 'em.

Kevin Drum 3:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A DEMOCRATIC SPEECH?....Media Girl sums up Bush's New Orleans speech: "From now on, I am a Democrat." Max agrees. So do a lot of other people.

When the going gets tough, the tough turn liberal.....

POSTSCRIPT: Then again, Dan Froomkin suggests there's another possibility:

Maybe it's just a plan to transform the Gulf Coast into a big test bed for conservative social policy, where tax breaks flow to big business and tax money flows to Halliburton, churches and private schools. That utterly terrifies liberals.

The argument that the administration will consider conservative ideological gains as a paramount consideration certainly gains credence when you consider, as I wrote in yesterday's column, that the White House's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, has apparently been put in charge of reconstruction plans.

Josh Marshall is all over this possibility too. Sam Rosenfeld and Harold Meyerson have some gloomy thoughts as well.

BY THE WAY: Has anyone else noticed that this is sort of the mirror image of "Only Nixon can go to China"? Aside from a need to repair the specific perception that he looked detached during the early days of the disaster, Bush also probably felt a need to respond to the general perception that Republicans are stingy and heartless. There's a good chance that a Democratic president could have gotten away with a less generous plan.

Kevin Drum 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PORK....By the time it finished wending its way through our tough minded, fiscally conservative Republican congress, the highway bill recently signed by President Bush included over 6,000 "earmarks." Translated from DC-ese, this means pork, money that's targeted for specific projects in specific districts. The most famous of the bill's earmarks is the "Bridge to Nowhere," a $223 million boondoggle that will connnect the Alaskan city of Ketchikan, population 8,900, to the island of Gravina, population 50. Why? Because Gravina and Ketchikan are represented by Republican Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation estimates that the bill's earmarks are worth $25 billion, and he has a suggestion: give it back and use it for Katrina reconstruction instead. Utt reports that although his plan has gotten some support, "the response from Members of Congress has been mostly silence." (Young, not surprisingly, called it "moronic.")

I'm surprised I even have to say this, but here it is: Democrats should be all over this idea. They should be screaming from the ramparts, regardless of who voted for what or how much money their own districts got. It's an issue that's practically gift wrapped for them: a chance to display fiscal prudence, show up Republicans for the corrupt wastrels they've become, and demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. It's got everything.

So why aren't Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi leading the charge?

Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GLORIFYING TERRORISM....Terrorists killed 3,000 people in the United States on 9/11. We responded with the Patriot Act.

Terrorists killed a few dozen people in Great Britain on 7/7. Tony Blair's government is responding with legislation that would outlaw the "glorification" of terrorism:

Any individual who glorifies terrorism could be prosecuted and any organisation that provides succour and support to terrorism could be added to a list of banned organisations.

It will not be a crime to glorify an event that happened more than 20 years before, unless it is on a list drawn up by the Home Secretary.

....The Home Office said: "Events which are still felt to be raw will be contained in an order attached to the Bill. For example, in 20 years people may still feel that September 11 or July 7 were events that still ought not to be glorified.

"Some examples which have been put forward of events that might not qualify for inclusion are the Easter Uprising or the French Revolution."

The French Revolution "might not" qualify! Does that mean it might? That would do wonders for EU harmony, wouldn't it?

Thank God for the First Amendment. One has to wonder: is this really something that Tony Blair wants to leave as his legacy? A government right to decide which events his citizens are allowed to praise and which ones they aren't?

Chris Bertram has a collection of events over at Crooked Timber, and he wants to know which ones belong on the list and which ones don't. Head on over and help him out.

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BATTERED....The nation's great newspapers all agree on one thing today: George Bush's speech in New Orleans last night was designed as much to rescue his reputation as it was to rescue the battered Gulf Coast. Here are the headlines:

Will $200 billion do the trick to turn Bush's poll numbers around? Or will Karl Rove blow it by being a little obvious about who he spreads that money around to? Stay tuned!

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLACATING THE BASE....Conservative Republicans are getting edgy over the price tag on George Bush's $200 billion effort to revive his reputation. No surprise there. But at least one senator seems to be genuinely serious:

"It's not about taking care of the folks that need us," [Oklahoma Senator Tom] Coburn said in an interview. "But I wouldn't vote for another penny until we get real about the hard choices of cutting some spending." In what would be a real break for conservatives, Mr. Coburn said he is also not inclined to vote to extend the Bush tax cuts absent some fiscal restraint.

Griping about spending is one thing, but when they start suggesting they might hold the line on tax cuts, it's clear that some serious rebellion is in the air.

And what does this mean? That's easy: a fire breathing social conservative to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's Supreme Court seat. Bush is going to have to do something to keep the Coburn wing of the party happy, after all.

Kevin Drum 1:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ANATOMY OF AN URBAN LEGEND....Yesterday I wrote a post about a few urban legends surrounding Hurricane Katrina, one of which was this:

On Thursday, September 1, Mike Brown and Michael Chertoff knew nothing about the mob scene at the Convention Center even though it had been on national television "for at least a day."

Bob Somerby said that was wrong, a couple of my commenters disagreed, and today Bob took up the subject again. So what really happened?

Based on Bob's posts and a review of the Nexis archives, here's the basic chronology starting on Wednesday, August 31. There's an odd twist at the end, though, so read the whole thing.

Wednesday evening: The mob scene at the convention center gets its initial coverage on cable news.

Fox has a single brief mention at 7 pm, when Jeff Goldblat tells Shepard Smith about "many heading to the convention center because they have heard the rumor that buses will take them somewhere."

CNN's coverage is a little more extensive. At 3 pm Lt. Brian Wininger tells Wolf Blitzer, "we just pushed a whole bunch of people...to the convention center."

At 7 pm Chris Lawrence tells Anderson Cooper there are 3,000 people at the Convention Center: "These people are hungry. They're tired. They've got nowhere to go. They've got no answers, and they've got no communication whatsoever." At 8 pm he tells Paula Zahn "there are literally thousands of people lined up at this convention center wandering aimlessly."

On MSNBC at 10 pm, Michelle Hofland tells Joe Scarborough that "it is absolute chaos" at the Convention Center.

At 11:09 pm, the Times-Picayune posts a piece that mentions 3,000 people "stranded" at the Convention Center: "A steady stream of often angry or despondent people, many from flooded Central City, trickled first toward Lee Circle and then to the convention center."

Thursday morning: The scene at the Convention Center is all over the news.

Thursday morning/afternoon: DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff tells NPR, "I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water." This is an especially clueless statement since it was made literally at the same time that the Convention Center mob scene was blanketing the airwaves. It is undoubtedly the source of all subsequent reporting about DHS and FEMA being out of touch with what was happening in New Orleans.

Thursday evening: Mike Brown tells Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News, "The federal government just learned about those people today." Later he tells Paula Zahn, "the federal government did not even know about the Convention Center people until today."

On Nightline, Ted Koppel asks Brown, "Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today." Brown responds: "We learned about it factually today that that what existed."

So who's right? There was coverage on CNN throughout Wednesday evening, and Chertoff didn't know anything about the situation on Thursday morning even though there was loads of coverage by then. For his part, Brown said repeatedly on Thursday that FEMA had only learned about the situation at the Convention Center that day.

On the other hand, the Wednesday evening reports were brief and included no video, so Koppel overplayed his hand when he implied broad coverage the previous day. (And as Bob points out, the coverage that did exist from Wednesday was from other networks, not ABC.)

But here's the odd twist. In his interview with the New York Times yesterday, Brown was asked why FEMA hadn't learned about the Convention Center chaos until Thursday:

"I just absolutely misspoke." In fact, he said, he learned about the evacuees there from the first media reports more than 24 hours earlier, but the reports conflicted with information from local authorities and he had no staff on the site until Thursday.

Huh? On Thursday the 1st, Brown said at least three times that he hadn't learned about the Convention Center until that day, but now he says he "misspoke" on every one of those occasions. And regardless of whether the reporting on Wednesday evening was thin or not, Brown now says FEMA had been following it after all. They just didn't do anything about it because it "conflicted with information from local authorities" a statement he doesn't back up at all.

Bottom line: I don't know whether this really counts as an urban legend or not. In general, Brown and Chertoff really were pretty ignorant about what was going on, so the general charge of cluelessness seems fair to me. On the other hand, they hadn't been ignoring blanket coverage for 24 hours, either.

Draw your own conclusions. But if you're planning to write about this incident, regardless of what you plan to say, at least now you know the chronology of what really happened.

Corrections and updates welcome, of course.

Kevin Drum 1:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TOUGH CHOICES....Think Progress has posted the Republican talking points about Hurricane Katrina here. The last one is my favorite:

This is going to require difficult decisions in Washington. Its going to be important that we dont have the same ol same ol that we see in Washington. Tough choices will be to have made and President Bush is willing to do that.

Let's get this straight. Bush is saying that (a) he's planning to spend $200 billion on reconstruction, (b) he won't raise any taxes, and (c) we shouldn't be pointing fingers because everybody's at fault here. Is there a tough choice hidden in there somewhere that I don't see?

Kevin Drum 7:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DON'T ASK DON'T TELL....Jim Henley points us to a report from the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military that suggests the military isn't quite as anti-gay as it claims to be:

Scholars studying military personnel policy have found a controversial regulation halting the discharge of gay soldiers in units that are about to be mobilized.

....Gay soldiers and legal groups have reported for years that known gays are sent into combat, and then discharged when the conflicts end....But the Pentagon has consistently denied that, when mobilization requires bolstering troop strength, it sends gays to fight despite the existence of a gay ban.

Reasonably enough, Jim suggests that this undermines the entire case for keeping gays out of the military:

Recall that the respectable case against allowing out homosexuals to serve in the military is that it will undermine unit cohesion in the stress of battle. Keeping gays and straights apart in hostilities is what the policy is supposed to be for. If the problem isnt enough to keep gays out of the wartime Army, its certainly not enough to keep them out of the peacetime Army.

True enough. Still, we're left with the original question itself: does the military suddenly discover that unit cohesion can survive the presence of gay soldiers perfectly well whenever they also discover a more urgent need for units? Do they stop enforcing their anti-gay policy when a war starts and their need for boots on the ground outweighs their need to placate social conservatives?

My contribution to this question is the chart on the right, which shows the number of discharges under the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. Is that peak in 2001 just a coincidence? Or did something happen that year that might have caused the military to suddenly decide that a good soldier is a good soldier regardless? I'm sure it will come to me if I think about it a bit....

Kevin Drum 5:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SECTION 8 UPDATE....Last week I mentioned a plan to use Section 8 housing vouchers to help people left homeless by Katrina. It's a good idea, but the Bush administration appears to prefer the idea of vast "Katrinatowns" filled with thousands of mobile homes. Jon Cohn picks up the story today and suggests that this doesn't make much sense:

With vouchers, these people could start rebuilding their lives right away rather than spend two or three years waiting in government-built trailer parks. "Think of a displaced renter with a couple of kids," says [Bruce] Katz. "How do you get those kids into a stable environment for the coming school year and next school year? Live in a trailer? Live in a motel? It makes so much more sense to get them into stable rental housing."

It does unless you have the instincts of the Bush administration. After all, the Clinton administration embraced the voucher scheme after Northridge because, when it needed to design and implement an emergency housing plan, it immediately looked to HUD a department it had packed with capable, experienced policy hands and whose ideas (like Section 8) it was accustomed to taking seriously. But the Bush administration has tried to shrink HUD's budget and stature. It has also tried to gut Section 8, the program's bipartisan history notwithstanding. So, while the pressing human crisis of Katrina (not to mention the political backlash at the bungled federal response) has forced the administration to spend lavishly on hurricane relief, it has instinctively looked away from government and toward private firms like the Shaw Group, which won a no-bid contract to construct mobile homes. (Shaw's lobbyist, in case you hadn't heard, is Joe Allbaugh, the former FEMA director and Bush campaign manager.)

Read the whole thing. A Section 8 proposal from Paul Sarbanes has passed the Senate, but it faces an uncertain reception in the House and a distinct lack of interest from the president. Hopefully that will change.

Kevin Drum 2:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TIME TO REEVALUATE?....Andrew Tobias today:

THE NEW REPUBLICAN PARTY

Tom Friedman in yesterdays New York Times: Last year, we cut the National Science Foundation budget, while indulging absurd creationist theories in our schools....

I just want to stress that those of you who are Republicans or libertarians are welcome in the Democratic Party.

  • We dont rack up massive deficits without good purpose (the last one we racked up was to fight and win World War II).

  • We find ways to topple and imprison genocidal dictators like Milosovich at relatively low cost we would have been more effective with Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

  • We would be encouraging embryonic stem cell research, not seeking a global United Nations ban (which, thankfully, we lost most recently, 79-80).

  • We dont believe Tom DeLay should make lifes intensely difficult choices for your daughter or your dying parent.

You wont like everything about us. But overall, isnt it time to reevaluate?

Kevin Drum 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JON CHAIT WATCH....When we last left him, Jon Chait was explaining the roots of George Bush's governing philosophy:

Bush's [domestic] political successes all have three main elements in common....The first is massive partisan discipline.... Element No. 2 is massive giveaways to well-organized lobbies.... The third element is how should I put it? lying.

So how's he doing with Hurricane Katrina? Let's take it by the numbers:

  1. Massive partisan discipline. Check.

  2. Massive giveaways. Check.

  3. Massive lying. Check. Check. Check.

It looks like Karl Rove has recovered from his kidney stone surgery and is back in the saddle. From here on out, it should be smooth sailing.

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND THE MILLENNIUM....I normally find newspaper editorials barely worth the effort of scanning, but today's lead editorial in the LA Times has it exactly right about George Bush's nauseatingly hypocritical speech to the UN yesterday:

"We are committed to the Millennium Development Goals....We have a moral obligation to help others," [Bush said on Wednesday.]

But not, apparently, a moral obligation to live up to our commitments, or even tell the truth about them.

U.N. members, including the United States, agreed in 2002 at a summit in Monterrey, Mexico, that wealthy nations would "make concrete efforts" to contribute 0.7% of their national income toward foreign aid by 2015.

....But John R. Bolton, appointed as ambassador to the U.N. by Bush after the Senate failed to confirm him, threw negotiators into disarray last month by introducing hundreds of last-minute amendments. Among them was the deletion of nearly all references to the millennium goals and the 0.7% target. Under pressure, Bolton relented and allowed the language to remain.

The Bush administration has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of trying to reach the 0.7% goal.

Bush is supposed to be a plain-speaking everyman. So why does he pretend to support an agreement he obviously doesn't? The reality is that Bush has broken every single promise he's made about the millennium goals and has thrown up every possible roadblock in the way of allowing millennium money to be used effectively. It's a wonder he was able to give yesterday's speech with a straight face.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MIKE BROWN WATCH....SPECIAL EDITION....The New York Times features an extended interview with Mike Brown today. I don't really know what to make of it. Is he blaming Chertoff and Bush, even though he says he isn't? Does he realize that recounting his frantic and apparently futile efforts to get anyone to pay attention to him just makes him look like a doofus? Or that this passage is pathetic?

The crowd in the Superdome, the city's shelter of last resort, was already larger than expected. But Mr. Brown said he was relieved to see that the mayor had a detailed list of priorities, starting with help to evacuate the Superdome.

Mr. Brown passed the list on to the state emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, but when he returned that evening he was surprised to find that nothing had been done.

"I am just screaming at my F.C.O., 'Where are the helicopters?' " he recalled. " 'Where is the National Guard? Where is all the stuff that the mayor wanted?' "

I dunno. Read the whole thing. Maybe there's a deep layer that I'm not picking up on, but all his efforts to explain himself seem to backfire. Whether true or not, his attempt to blame state officials looks petty and lame, and his attempt to defend everyone else accomplishes just the opposite. Weird.

Kevin Drum 1:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LUNCH ON SUNDAY....William F. Buckley and the gang at National Review are having a party in Los Angeles on Saturday night. You can attend for a mere thousand dollars.

I think I'll have a party of my own, then. I'm planning to have lunch at the Farmer's Market on Sunday, and anyone who wants to join me is welcome to come. Think of it as an impromptu blog get-together.

I'll be there at noon in the upstairs seating area above Magee's. The NR guys are welcome too come on by after you sleep off your hangovers and argue with some liberals! The food is good too.

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR....This is a little off the beaten path for this blog, but I was fascinated to see that Slate ran an essay today by Alana Newhouse about, of all things, Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar which, if Newhouse is to be believed, remains a favorite after all these years among "today's post-feminist women." Here's how the essay ends:

Regardless, there is one point of agreement: Almost everyone loves the Marjorie of the first 556 pages. This Marjorie evokes the period when girls are still free to dream about their future, before they actually have to start making choices about it. Wouk might wince at the thought, but what women enjoy about his book is the promise of adolescence. As she enters middle age, Marjorie continues to defy her paternal creator, like the rebellious teenager she was meant to be.

Is this really true? Does everyone really love the Marjorie of the first 556 pages?

Now, I read the book many years ago when I was on a Herman Wouk kick and I don't remember it very sharply, but I do remember what my reaction to the first 556 pages was: that Wouk had written the novel on a bet. I figured Wouk was trying to prove that he could write a good novel even if it featured a primary character who the reader knew from the start was shallow, middlebrow, and never meant to accomplish anything meaningful her own delusions to the contrary notwithstanding. The final nine pages aren't a surprising twist, they're simply an acknowledgment of what Marjorie always was.

Am I the only one who thought that? Did everyone else truly love the Marjorie of the first 556 pages?

POSTSCRIPT: On the other hand, I think City Boy is underappreciated. It's a lot of fun and never gets much attention.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 14, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

GAY MARRIAGE....The Massachusetts legislature has overwhelmingly voted down a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage. From the New York Times:

Wednesday's 157-to-39 vote by a joint session of the House and Senate partly reflected the fact that some legislators now consider same-sex marriage more politically acceptable, after a largely conflict-free year in which some 6,600 same-sex couples got married and lawmakers who supported it got re-elected.

....Saying he had heard from over 7,000 constituents, most against the amendment, [Sentor Brian] Lees added, "Gay marriage has begun and life has not changed for the citizens of the commonwealth, with the exception of those who can now marry who could not before."

And from the Washington Post:

Politicians here credit the weddings themselves with shifting the political momentum, saying their growing ordinariness has defused some of the opposition.

"The difference is that we have marriage," said state Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios (D) after the vote, while other supporters screamed and cheered nearby in a rally under a mural of the Boston Tea Party. "We've got a world that hasn't changed."

....The differences were noticed by politicians, who say they started getting more letters in favor of the marriages, and by public-opinion pollsters, who noted in March that 56 percent of state residents believed same-sex marriages should be allowed.

This is the beginning of the end for gay marriage opponents. As gay marriage becomes more common both in the United States and in other countries and absolutely nothing happens except that more people than ever can show off wedding scrapbooks with pictures of beaming partners and guests having a blast, opposition will slowly but surely melt away. The homophobes are banking everything on the proposition that same-sex marriage will lead to moral degeneracy and the breakdown of society, and when that doesn't happen they'll have nothing left.

Kevin Drum 10:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HAIL TO THE CHIEF.... Via Atrios, this is too funny not to post. Here's the Reuters caption:

"U.S. President George W. Bush writes a note to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a Security Council meeting at the 2005 World Summit and 60th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York September 14, 2005. World leaders are exploring ways to revitalize the United Nations at a summit on Wednesday but their blueprint falls short of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's vision of freedom from want, persecution and war."

Kevin Drum 6:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Leon Fuerth

In my first post, I talked about the disaster in New Orleans as an example of government shortsightedness. What look like unexpected calamities are often anything but. Theyre moments when we pay the price for ignoring things that we shouldnt be ignoring.

What can we do about the shortsightedness of government? We (and this means both sides of the political aisle; this is too important to be a partisan issue) need to do a much better job of planning forward. Forecasting, scenario planning, the kinds of wargaming that the military does; all these are useful. After 36 years in government, 8 of them at the top in the White House, I can tell you that civilian policy makers arent doing much of any of this.

This helps explain what happened in New Orleans. People just werent prepared. As Chris Mooney said, prophetically, a few months back:

Shockingly, even in the wake of the Asian tsunami catastrophe, there has been little widespread discussion of scenarios in which the United States could find part of its home territory devastated by the sea. Chatter in New Orleans itself has largely focused on improving evacuation plans and reducing gridlock as a storm approaches. These are necessary conversations to have, certainly, but bigger-picture perspectives have rarely surfaced in broader public discussions. That has to change -- and fast.

It didnt change fast enough. Weve got to do better next time.

Leon Fuerth 4:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOGLE BLOG SEARCH....Google has a new service called Google Blog Search that searches only blog posts. That sounds pretty handy, especially if like me you're constantly trying to remember something that you saw on a blog somewhere a few hours ago but can't remember where.

Now all they have to do is start a search service that searches only the past 7 days of my history file. That would be dynamite.

Via James Joyner.

Kevin Drum 3:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

URBAN LEGENDS....Somebody probably ought to make a collection of urban legends about Hurricane Katrina. I'll start with these stories, each of which have made the rounds pretty much everywhere but have turned out to be substantially untrue:

  • Mike Brown was not Joe Allbaugh's college roommate. They were friends in college, but not roommates.

  • That picture of firefighters who were sent to Mississippi solely to march around on a photo-op with President Bush? It was taken on September 2. The firefighters allegedly sent to "stand beside" Bush were dispatched to Louisiana and weren't flown there until September 5. The ones in the picture are legit.

  • The blacks who were labeled "looters" vs. the whites who "found" stuff in that famous pair of wire photos? Maybe, but the explanation here seems pretty reasonable.

  • Mike Brown and Michael Chertoff on Thursday knowing nothing about the mob scene at the Convention Center even though it had been on national television "for at least a day"? I think there might still be some chronology to clear up here, but Bob Somerby seems to make a good case that although the situation at the Convention Center was briefly reported the previous evening, it had been widely aired for at most a few hours before Chertoff's statement, not a day. That's still bad (and clueless), but not as bad.

    UPDATE: See here, here, here, here, and here in comments. It looks like TV coverage the previous evening was more extensive than Somerby suggests.

    UPDATE 2: Who's right about this? An extensive followup is here.

  • Reports of looting and rape among mobs of evacuees in Baton Rouge and Houston? Apparently untrue.

  • Nobody knew the levees had been breached until Tuesday the 30th. In fact, the National Weather Service reported the first levee breach early Monday morning, just as Katrina was making landfall.

    UPDATE: The linked item refers to the Industrial Canal breach, and Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid emails to say that, in fact, there was very little confusion about this breach. Everyone up and down the line knew about it almost immediately. However:

    What caused the real confusion occurred in another part of town, where drainage canal floodwalls (the now-infamous 17th Street canal, and the London Avenue canal) also breached. These breaches flooded most of the central part of the city (the bowl) and made Katrina into a world-class catastrophe.

    The 17th Street breach was visually confirmed early Monday, August 29, reported in The Times-Picayune that afternoon, and re-confirmed by a FEMA employee later in the day. But somehow this crucial information did not make it up the chain of command, so nobody in Washington knew what was going on. Thus Michael Chertoff was unaware of any of it until sometime Tuesday, and even then kept talking about a second flood that he thought had started Tuesday.

    So it's still true that the levee breaches were initially reported early Monday and FEMA didn't know about it until much later. But it was the 17th Street breach that was the problem, not the Industrial Canal breach.

  • The floodwaters in New Orleans are a "toxic soup." Nope.

If you have other examples, add them in comments. Note that I'm not looking for individual errors from a single source or arguments about who's to blame for what. I'm only looking for specific, widely accepted stories that are demonstrably false.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A SWIMMING POOL, NOT A BATHTUB....Via Atrios, Tom DeLay finally admits that shrinking government to the point where we can drown it in a bathtub isn't going to happen:

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said yesterday that Republicans have done so well in cutting spending that he declared an "ongoing victory," and said there is simply no fat left to cut in the federal budget.

...."My answer to those that want to offset the spending is sure, bring me the offsets, I'll be glad to do it. But nobody has been able to come up with any yet," the Texas Republican told reporters at his weekly briefing.

Asked if that meant the government was running at peak efficiency, Mr. DeLay said, "Yes, after 11 years of Republican majority we've pared it down pretty good."

Good job, Republicans! Can we now send Grover Norquist home?

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ROE v. WADE....David Savage has a fascinating retrospective today about Harry Blackmun and how he came to write the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. It's based on papers opened to the public last year that show that Blackmun's primary intent at the time was only to protect physicians who performed medically necessary abortions. Women were something of an afterthought:

Blackmun voiced disdain for feminists who said women deserved control over their bodies. "There is no absolute right to do with one's body what you like," he said. But he agreed that the Texas law was extreme and said it did "not go far enough to protect doctors."

....Blackmun's opinion ends by saying: "The decision vindicates the right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment....The abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision. If an individual practitioner abuses the privilege of exercising proper medical judgment, the usual remedies, judicial and intra-professional, are available."

....Burger filed a short concurrence and predicted the ruling would not have "sweeping consequences."

Blackmun's proposed press release also downplayed the potential effects of the ruling, stressing that it would not mean "abortion on demand." His court colleagues convinced him that it would be inappropriate to issue a statement that commented on a ruling.

This reminds me of the Supreme Court's suggestion in 1997 that allowing the Paula Jones suit to go to trial was "highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of petitioner's time." It appears that the Supreme Court itself is not always the best judge of the scope and importance of its own decisions.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MICHAEL CHERTOFF WATCH....Knight Ridder is now suggesting that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff was as responsible as FEMA chief Mike Brown for the slow response to Hurricane Katrina. In fact, maybe more so:

Chertoff not Brown was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan....But according to a memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Chertoff didn't shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.

"As you know, the President has established the 'White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Response.' He will meet with us tomorrow to launch this effort. The Department of Homeland Security, along with other Departments, will be part of the task force and will assist the Administration with its response to Hurricane Katrina," Chertoff said in the memo to the secretaries of defense, health and human services and other key federal agencies.

.... White House and homeland security officials wouldn't explain why Chertoff waited some 36 hours to declare Katrina an incident of national significance and why he didn't immediately begin to direct the federal response from the moment on Aug. 27 when the National Hurricane Center predicted that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in 48 hours. Nor would they explain why Bush felt the need to appoint a separate task force.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this, but it jibes with the Wall Street Journal's summary of FEMA's confusion, including this description of the mysterious bus fiasco:

FEMA's official requests, known as tasking assignments and used by the agency to demand help from other government agencies, show that it first asked the Department of Transportation to look for buses to help evacuate the more than 20,000 people who had taken refuge at the Superdome in New Orleans at 1:45 a.m. on Aug. 31. At the time, it only asked for 455 buses....

FEMA ended up modifying the number of buses it thought it needed to get the job done, until it settled on a final request of 1,355 buses at 8:05 p.m. on Sept. 3. The buses, though, trickled into New Orleans, with only a dozen or so arriving on the first day.

So FEMA didn't request any buses at all until two days after the hurricane hit, then puttered around a bit, and finally settled on a firm number on Saturday. Saturday?

I don't know if the state of Louisiana was primarily responsible for buses or not, but even if they were, how could it have taken until Saturday for FEMA to finally figure out what was going on and how many buses it needed?

Kevin Drum 1:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RESPONSIBILITY....I'm curious about something. I'm just asking here, so don't go ballistic, OK?

Today President Bush responded to a question about Hurricane Katrina by saying, "To the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility." Liberal pundits gasped in dismay because Bush famously refuses to ever admit mistakes or take responsibility for things that go wrong. This was a moment for history!

But here's the question: is Bush really very different from any other president in this regard? Harry Truman and his famous stopped buck aside, taking responsibility for specific mistakes is not exactly something that most politicians are noted for.

As a matter of curiosity, I did a Nexis search in the Washington Post for "Clinton w/10 'take responsibility.'" I got 44 hits, and of those only two were actually examples of Clinton taking responsibility for some kind of mistake. The first was Waco, an incident he was initially criticized for because of the perception that he had allowed Janet Reno to take the fall, and the second was Monica Lewinsky, which was dragged out of him only after months of subpoenas and grand jury testimony. Even granting that the criticism over Waco might have been unfair, neither of these is exactly a sterling example of buck stopping.

Are there other examples? This is a genuine question, since Nexis searches aren't perfect and neither is my memory. And I'm not talking about generic apologies for historical injustices, I'm talking about accepting responsibility for specific failures of his administration. Did Clinton do this any more than Bush has?

Kevin Drum 12:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN ROBERTS....I haven't been blogging about the John Roberts hearings, and I feel like this makes me a bad blogger. The thing is, the hearings are so obviously a Kabuki dance that I just can't get excited about any of the details. Is there anyone who seriously thinks that Roberts will sustain any damage during the hearings or that he won't sail through confirmation?

At this point I think it's all for show, but I'll open it up for comments in case someone disagrees. Can anyone provide a plausible argument that there's even a tiny chance of Roberts not getting confirmed?

Kevin Drum 10:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KINSLEY LEAVES LA....Michael Kinsley's brief tenure at the Los Angeles Times editorial page is officially over. Apparently it was not a very happy parting of the ways.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE....Hurricane Katrina has taken my mind off other things, but Chris Mooney's appearance on the Daily Show last night reminds me that I've been remiss in not recommending his new book, The Republican War on Science. It's a terrific read, and blogosphere reviews are already available from Brendan Nyhan and Henry Farrell.

The key question raised by the book, of course, is whether Republicans really misuse science any more than Democrats do. To answer that, here's my favorite passage from the book:

It just so happens that we have a perfect case study that can be used to contrast the Clinton and second Bush administrations' respective approaches to science: the question whether the government should support controversial needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV among (and by) intravenous drug users.

....Despite powerful evidence of their effectiveness, neither the Bush II nor Clinton administrations had the guts to support these programs with federal funding. But only one administration felt compelled to abuse science to justify its stance....In 1998, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala fully acknowledged the science up front. "We have concluded that needle-exchange programs...will decrease the transmission of HIV and will not encourage the use of illegal drugs," she stated, even as she went on to explain, awkwardly, that the programs would not be supported: "We had to make a choice. It was a decision. It was a decision to leave it to local communities."

In contrast, the Bush administration simply twisted the science. In an extraordinary February 2005 editorial, the Washington Post revealed that to justify the decision to oppose needle-exchange programs (which are especially disliked by religious conservatives), a Bush official directed the papaper "to a number of researchers who have allegedly cast doubt on the pro-exchange consensus."

The Post editorial Chris refers to is indeed extraordinary. You can read it here and it's as good a primer as you'll find on the willingness of the Bush administration to flatly lie about science in the hope that no one will bother to check up on them. The Post did, and everything they had been told was untrue.

This is the real difference. Science informs policy but doesn't drive it, and administrations can legitimately propose a wide variety of policies regardless of what the science says. But that's not what modern Republicans do. Instead, they try to subvert science itself. Global warming doesn't exist. Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory. Condoms don't prevent STDs. Needle exchange programs don't work. As Chris put it last night, Republicans want to turn science into yet another of the he-said/she-said shouting matches that work so well for them in other areas, generating uncertainty where none exists and undermining one of the few sources of objective knowledge we have.

The Republican War on Science exposes this effort for what it is. Highly recommended.

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM....Mark Schmitt says something interesting today about the governing philosophy of the Bush/Rove presidency:

I think of Rove as looking at past presidencies and seeing them as weakened because they worried too much about consequences that didn't really matter, such as the judgment of history or short-term popularity. Bush 41 thought that he had to do something about the deficit, or there would be consequences. So he got drawn into the Andrews Air Force Base budget summit, which earned him a fight within his own party. But Rove recognizes that there's a lot you can get away with if you just act like you can get away with it, especially if you raise the stakes, and as a result he moves with much greater freedom. It seems to me that part of their genius is they've gotten rid of much of the "you just can't do that" mentality of politics, and stripped everything down to the bare essence of what they can get away with.

One of my biggest worries is that that's a genie that will be very hard to put back in the bottle. Politics, like much of civilization, depends on the existence of some unquestioned, "it just isn't done" customs. An example that I've mentioned a couple times is the explicit theory, on display once again in the CAFTA vote, that you want to pass a bill with as narrow a margin as possible, because every vote over 218 in the House is wasted and might represent a compromise. That's not something that legislative strategists ever thought of before....

It's true that Rove has figured out that the Washington consensus that favors compromise and bipartisanship is nothing more than a custom, and one that can be successfully ignored. Newt Gingrich actually had the insight before him, but Rove is the one who made it work.

But while there's a lot to this, I think it may take too narrow a view. After all, nearly all successful presidents have figured out something their predecessors didn't. FDR understood that he could harness the power of the state in ways that no one had thought of before, LBJ understood the growing power of race as an electoral tool, and Reagan was the first to figure out how to use television as a fundamental source of power. On a smaller level, Nixon jiu-jitsued LBJ's insight by figuring out how to use racial fear to win the presidency, and Republicans in the 90s figured out new ways of manipulating the media to destroy an adversary.

Bottom line: I don't think that overturning long established conventional wisdom is unique to Bush and the modern Republican machine. It's a standard part of political evolution. The real problem for liberals, I think, is merely that we haven't made any contributions to this evolution recently. Somewhere out there, there's some kind of conventional wisdom that could be overturned to our benefit. We just need to figure out what it is.

Kevin Drum 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA POLL....The Pew Research Center has released a detailed poll about reactions to Hurricane Katrina, and the results are unsurprising. Democrats and Republicans have about the same opinion of the state/local response, but split sharply on the quality of the federal response. Likewise, there's a huge split between whites and blacks about whether or not the government response would have been better if most of the victims had been white.

More details are here. Other results: George Bush's approval rating is down, nobody has been reassured about our ability to respond to a terrorist attack, television as a source of news is way up and newspapers and the internet are down, and overall, Katrina is the sixth most closely followed news story of the past two decades.


Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TRENCH POLITICS....Ross Douthat writes today that conservatism hasn't accomplished much since taking over the country four years ago (or 10 years or 25 years ago depending on how you count). You know what? Despite all the griping that liberals do about George Bush, Ross is right. Here's a quick recap of the major legislative and executive actions of Bush's first term:

  1. No Child Left Behind

  2. Some big tax cuts

  3. Big spending increases, both in defense and nondefense spending

  4. The stem cell straddle

  5. Patriot Act

  6. Invasion of Afghanistan

  7. Sarbanes-Oxley

  8. McCain-Feingold

  9. Department of Homeland Security

  10. Invasion of Iraq

  11. Medicare prescription bill

  12. Some conservative judges

Of these, some are just plain liberal (3, 7, 8, 11), some were basically neutral or bipartisan (1, 5, 6, 9), and only a couple are clearly conservative (2, 12). Of the remaining two items, the stem cell straddle was....a straddle, and if the Iraq war is a conservative cause, it's only because George Bush is fighting it. Outside of PNAC circles, conservatives have not exactly been baying for more foreign wars over the past decade.

So what explains this? Oddly enough, Ramesh Ponnuru inadvertantly provides the answer in his explanation of why the Medicare bill was necessary even though conservatives didn't care for it:

Like it or not and I mostly dislike it the Medicare bill succeeded in defusing the issue. If John Kerry had been able to run ads, and pound Bush in the debates, about how the president had failed to deliver on his promises to create a prescription-drug benefit, Bush could well have lost Ohio.

Exactly. Even though expanding Medicare is a classic liberal proposal, passing it was necessary to Bush's political survival. Why? Because for the most part, Americans are fundamentally in favor of liberal policies and goals.

This explains why Bush didn't simply ban federal funding of all stem cell research and why his Social Security initiative failed. It's because liberals have won the public opinion fight over both stem cells and Social Security. It also explains why he hasn't cut spending and didn't push very hard on the gay marriage amendment.

The fact is, conservatives haven't won much of anything in the last 10 years except a PR triumph. Their biggest successes have been on taxes a Pyrrhic victory at best without corresponding spending cuts and in the court system, which hasn't actually delivered much real world benefit. Plus they have a war in Iraq, for whatever that's worth. Public opinion simply hasn't allowed them anything more.

Conservatives since Reagan have managed to slow down the march of liberalism something that was probably inevitable after the 60s anyway but PR triumphalism aside, that's about it. In reality, today's politics is reminiscent of World War I: dozens of divisions squaring off for bloody and horrific battles that end up doing nothing except clawing back a few yards of territory in one direction or the other. It looks and sounds horrible, but when the smoke clears the landscape hasn't altered much. Even the most conservative president of the past 50 years hasn't been able to change that.

BY THE WAY: For all that I despise George Bush, this is why it's not his ideology that bothers me the most. What's always bothered me more is his corporate cronyism and his clueless incompetence. He hasn't really managed to do all that much ideological damage and most of it can be repaired in any case but he has managed to screw up Iraq, screw up the future of the economy, screw up FEMA, and even screw up things like the Medicare bill, which I'd otherwise support. In the long run, those things matter a lot more than some new logging rules or the demise of New Source Review.

Kevin Drum 11:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FEMA AND THE LEVEES....Today's Wall Street Journal features an article about the levee breaches in New Orleans that asks, essentially, What did they know and when did they know it?

"They" is the news media, some of whom got the story right and some of whom got it wrong. But "they" is also FEMA, and they got it disastrously wrong too: "It was on Tuesday that the levee may have been overnight Monday to Tuesday that the levee started to break," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Tim Russert, but that wasn't true. The first levee breach happened on Monday morning:

The New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning at 8:14 a.m. Monday, saying "a levee breach occurred along the industrial canal at Tennessee Street. 3 to 8 feet of water is expected due to the breach."

What is FEMA's explanation for this? It's one thing that some media outlets didn't notice this warning, but FEMA? Shouldn't they have been practically bonded at the hip with the weather service? How could they possibly not have known immediately about the levee breach?

UPDATE: Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid emails to say that, in fact, there was very little confusion about the Industrial Canal breach. Everyone up and down the line knew about it almost immediately. However:

What caused the real confusion occurred in another part of town, where drainage canal floodwalls (the now-infamous 17th Street canal, and the London Avenue canal) also breached. These breaches flooded most of the central part of the city (the bowl) and made Katrina into a world-class catastrophe.

The 17th Street breach was visually confirmed early Monday, August 29, reported in The Times-Picayune that afternoon, and re-confirmed by a FEMA employee later in the day. But somehow this crucial information did not make it up the chain of command, so nobody in Washington knew what was going on. Thus Michael Chertoff was unaware of any of it until sometime Tuesday, and even then kept talking about a second flood that he thought had started Tuesday.

So it's still true that the levee breaches were initially reported early Monday and FEMA didn't know about it until much later. But it was the 17th Street breach that was the problem, not the Industrial Canal breach.

Kevin Drum 9:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INTERESTING TIMES....Here's a quick break from important topics such as hurricanes and Supreme Court justices. Sam Crane emails to tell me that the ancient Chinese proverb "May you live in interesting times," which I cited earlier, has an, ahem, interesting history:

  • It's not ancient.

  • It's not Chinese.

  • It might be Scottish.

  • According to Stephen DeLong, its earliest known use is either in a 1950 science fiction story by Eric Frank Russell or else in a commentary on "The Secret of the Golden Flower" written by Carl Jung in 1931. The latter seems unlikely, though. The miracle of Amazon search makes this fairly easy to check, and at the very least it doesn't appear in the English translation.

DeLong has more, but the bottom line is that it's definitely not Chinese. Whoever made it up did a good job of fooling everyone, though.

UPDATE: This post obviously suffers from a lack of Bush bashing, so let's add some! Geoff Waters emails to tell me that there is a genuine Chinese poem by the famous 11th century poet and government official Su Shi (a/k/a Su Dongpo) that could have been written by George H.W. Bush:

Wishes For My Son

Everyone hopes their children will be brilliant;
But I am too smart and my whole career has suffered.
So I hope you, my son, grow up dumb and simple,
And avoiding all my problems, become the Prime Minister.

That does, indeed, seem appropriate to our age.

Kevin Drum 4:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MIKE BROWN WATCH....CNN is reporting that FEMA chief Mike Brown has resigned. That's a shocker, isn't it?

No word yet on what the official excuse is. Or which loyal GOP lobbying group will promptly find a new job for him.

UPDATE: The AP dispatch is here. As some predicted, the official excuse is that Brown doesn't want to be a distraction from the important work ahead. "The focus has got to be on FEMA, what the people are trying to do down there," he said.

Kevin Drum 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ACCOUNTABILITY....Garance Franke-Ruta has a question about "accountability":

I hear so many people saying the same basic thing as Krugman Bush must be held accountable that I thought maybe it would be good to get a discussion going and unpack this....What one thing has to occur in order for it to be clear that Bush has been held accountable by voters or the opposition party?

Well, we'd all like to see the press keep their newfound spine, but I wouldn't count on that. And we'd certainly like to see Republicans pay a price at the polls in 2006, but that's more an objective than a strategy. The question is, how do we keep "accountability" front and center for the next year or so?

Since I have very little imagination, I'm going to suggest an old standby: ripping off the Contract With America. This time, though, the contract would be solely about promises to restore accountability to politics. I'll let someone else worry about the wordsmithing, but here are the kinds of bullets I have in mind:

  • Freedom of Information Act. Repudiate John Ashcroft's 2001 memo (and the White House followups) that encourage agencies to refuse FOIA requests even when no harm would result from disclosure.

  • Congressional Ethics. Revitalize ethics investigations by guaranteeing bipartisan ethics committees in which both parties have the right to subpoena records.

  • Independent Commissions. Ensure proper oversight of government operations by appointing independent commissions to investigate disasters like Hurricane Katrina, not handpicked committees designed to provide political cover.

  • Presidential Papers. Immediately reverse George Bush's 2001 executive order blocking access to a huge swath of presidential papers from previous administrations.

  • Task Forces. Open up the operation and deliberations of federal task forces to the public. No more repeats of the secretive Energy Task Force run by Dick Cheney.

  • Classification. Reverse President Bush's 2003 executive order that substantially increased the ability of federal agencies to classify information that had previously been open to the public.

  • The Press. Provide a personal promise from every Democrat that they will not lie to reporters under cover of anonymity. If they do, reporters are free to break their promises of confidentiality.

  • Legislative Text. Revive the old rule that the text of new legislation must be available for a minimum of three days before roll call votes are taken.

  • Voting. Schedule all congressional votes for normal business hours and restrict voting to the normal 15-minute period. Laws should not be passed in the dead of night and voting should not be kept open indefinitely.

I'm sure I've missed some important issues here, but you get the idea. You can add other bullets in comments. The basic theme, though, is obvious: to persuade the public that Republicans have been governing via a combination of corruption and secrecy that prevents them from being held accountable to the voters. A series of short and punchy promises to govern openly and honestly has the potential to put Bush and the Republican leadership on the defensive how can they argue against openness? and to attract voters regardless of ideology.

Is this worth a try? Maybe. Is it worth at least a discussion? Definitely.

Kevin Drum 2:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INTERESTING TIMES....John Podhoretz is a charter member of the lunatic right, but even he thinks that Hurricane Katrina might have provoked a sea change in both the way the press treats George Bush as well as the way his own staff treats him:

What's interesting about the stories [in Time and Newsweek] is that they suggest there's been a change at the Bush White House because they feature unnamed sources saying nasty things about the president. One of the remarkable aspects of this White House has been the fanatical loyalty its people have displayed toward Bush even talking to friendly journalists like me, it's been nearly impossible to get past the feel-good spin. If that's really changing, if staffers are beginning to separate themselves from their boss emotionally and indulge in on-background carping and cavilling, then two things are true. 1) Bush is about to suffer the agony that has afflicted all previous recent administrations the "who said that!" rages that distract our leaders and make them feel isolated in their jobs. 2) News stories are about to get a whole lot more interesting, and White House reporters are going to stop complaining about how hard it is to cover Bush.

Hmmm. What's that old Chinese proverb about interesting times? With that in mind, I think it would be very nice indeed if news stories about Bush suddenly got "a whole lot more interesting."

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Leon Fuerth

Once again, President Bush is trying to dodge blame for a major failure of public policy in this case, failure over years to upgrade New Orleans flood control systems, compounded by failure to move fast once it was clear that disaster was in the making. The President wants to appeal to our sense of fairness. After all, hes just a human being with limitations just like the rest of us. He asks how anybody could have anticipated the failure of the levees? Just as he once asked who could have anticipated that terrorists would use aircraft as guided missiles, as they did on September 11th? And just as he asked whether anyone could have foretold the real costs of war with Iraq?

Its a handy defense, and is likely to continue to be. Because out there in the future are still other "unimaginable'" contingencies. For example, one day he or his successor may have to ask us who knew there could be a world-wide collapse of confidence in the dollar if we continue to pile up debt? Or, that global warming would produce disastrous effects in a decade, rather than a century? Or, that the blessing of much longer life-spans would overturn all estimates about Social Security?

Theres a bigger problem here: our government is myopic. The executive branch and the congress focus on present-day issues, while constantly postponing consideration of future issues that have huge potential consequence. Over the next few days, I want to blog about this problem and start talking about how to solve it. If we want to prevent disasters like New Orleans from happening in the future, we need to think about new ways of making our politicians think about the long term, and holding their feet to the fire when they dont.

Leon Fuerth 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GUEST POSTER....Here's an interesting change of pace for you: For the next few days Leon Fuerth will be guest posting here at the Washington Monthly. Fuerth served as Al Gore's national security advisor when he was vice president and as his chief foreign policy advisor during the 2000 campaign. In the 2004 campaign, he was chair of Howard Dean's core group of national security and foreign policy advisors. He is currently a research professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

I'll still be around, but Fuerth will be popping in occasionally with some thoughts about Hurricane Katrina and the problems it's exposed in the U.S. political system. Should be interesting stuff.

Kevin Drum 2:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FEMA'S FAILURES....Among our conservative friends, there still appears to be a considerable amount of denial over the question of whether (and how) FEMA failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, many Bush administration apologists seem not to even understand FEMA's role, suggesting that the bulk of the failures belong at the state and local levels.

Needless to say, state and local authorities share plenty of blame for the slow and confused response to Katrina. My guess and it's just a guess at this point is that when the final story gets written, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is going to end up looking pretty bad and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco is going to end up looking bruised but basically OK. Time will tell on that front.

But much of FEMA's story is already written. After all, disasters like Katrina are the entire reason for FEMA's existence. It's nice to have them around for run-of-the-mill emergencies, of course, but it's essential to have them around for mega-disasters like Katrina, which are always going to overwhelm the capabilities of local authorities. In fact, it's exactly the kind of event where you want to bring to bear the full power of the federal government. As Jane Bullock, who spent 22 years at FEMA under presidents of both parties pointed out, FEMA needs to take charge in a situation like this. "The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility."

So how did FEMA fail? As a first stab, I'm going to collect excerpts from this weekend's collection of Katrina stories, as well as notes from a few other sources. A few of these reports will probably turn out to be wrong or exaggerated, but I think it's useful to have at least a tentative collection of FEMA's failures all in one place right now, especially since many of them seem to be rooted directly in policy decisions made over the past four years and it's policy decisions, more than individual failures, for which administrations deserve to be held accountable. The complete list is below the fold.

Pre-Katrina FEMA Coverage

  1. 1993-2000: Under James Lee Witt, FEMA is transformed from a backwater of political patronage into a widely praised model of efficient and rapid emergency response.

  2. January 2001: George Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh as director of FEMA. Allbaugh, who ran Bush's presidential campaign, has no previous experience in disaster management.

  3. May 2001: Allbaugh testifies that he believes federal involvement in disaster planning should be scaled back: "Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters. Federal assistance needs to supplement, not supplant, State and local efforts."

  4. December 2002: Allbaugh announces he is leaving FEMA. He is succeeded by his deputy and former college friend, Michael Brown, who also has no previous experience in disaster management. Brown's patent unsuitability for the job is documented here, here, and here.

  5. March 2003: FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting acts of terrorism.

  6. 2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.

  7. 2003-2005: Disaster professionals among FEMA's top staff are gradually replaced by political appointees with no relevant experience. See here and here.

  8. July 2004: During an exercise dubbed "Hurricane Pam," FEMA assures everyone that they can do all the heavy lifting necessary if the big one hits: "The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the moon and the stars. They promised to have 1,000,000 bottles of water per day coming into affected areas within 48 hours. They promised massive prestaging with water, ice, medical supplies and generators. Anything that was needed, they would have either in place as the storm hit or ready to move in immediately after....FEMA promised more than they could deliver. They cut off deeper, perhaps more meaningful discussion and planning by handing out empty promises."


Post-Katrina Coverage

New York Times, "Breakdowns Marked Path From Hurricane to Anarchy"

  1. "The agency dispatched only 7 of its 28 urban search and rescue teams to the area before the storm hit and sent no workers at all into New Orleans until after the hurricane passed on Monday, Aug. 29."

  2. "Rather than initiate relief efforts buses, food, troops, diesel fuel, rescue boats the agency waited for specific requests from state and local officials."

  3. "Hundreds of firefighters, who responded to a nationwide call for help in the disaster, were held by the federal agency in Atlanta for days of training on community relations and sexual harassment before being sent on to the devastated area."

  4. "FEMA would not let the trucks unload," Mr. Vines said in an interview. "The drivers were stuck for several days on the side of the road about 10 miles from Camp Beauregard. FEMA said we had to have a 'tasker number.' What in the world is a tasker number? I have no idea. It's just paperwork, and it's ridiculous."


Washington Post, "The Steady Buildup to a City's Chaos"

  1. August 26: "As the headquarters staff came in, there was a strange sense of inaction, as if 'nobody's turning the key to start the engine,' said one team leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. For his group, Friday was a day to sit around wondering, 'Why aren't we treating this as a bigger emergency? Why aren't we doing anything?'"

  2. August 28: "FEMA had already stockpiled for immediate distribution 2.7 million liters of water, 1.3 million meals ready to eat and 17 million pounds of ice, a Department of Homeland Security official said. But Louisiana received a relatively small portion of the supplies; for example, Alabama got more than five times as much water for distribution. 'It was what they would move for a normal hurricane business as usual versus a superstorm,' concluded Mark Ghilarducci, a former FEMA official now working as a consultant for Blanco."

  3. "Around midnight, at the last of the day's many conference calls, local officials ticked off their final requests for FEMA and the state. Maestri specifically asked for medical units, mortuary units, ice, water, power and National Guard troops. 'We laid it all out,' he recalled. 'And then we sat here for five days waiting. Nothing!'"

  4. August 29: "'We were all watching the evacuation,' Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe, Northcom's top operations officer, recalled. 'We knew that it would be among the worst storms ever to hit the United States.' But on Monday, the only request the U.S. military received from FEMA was for a half-dozen helicopters."

  5. "Ebbert said he told FEMA that night that the city would need buses to evacuate 30,000 people. 'It just took a long time,' he said."

  6. August 30: "Col. Jeff Smith, Louisiana's emergency preparedness chief, grew frustrated at FEMA's inability to send buses to move people out....'They have a tracking system and they'd say: "We sent 349." But we didn't see them.'"

  7. Item deleted. This entry originally referred to a statement by William Lokey, FEMA's coordinator on the ground, but a review of the video shows that the statement was actually made by Louisiana Senator David Vitter.

  8. "At the noon videoconference, several participants said, Louisiana's Smith heatedly demanded federal help. Where were the buses? At first, Smith recalled, he had asked for 450 buses, then 150 more, then an additional 500; by the end of the day, none had arrived. The first evacuees did not arrive at the Astrodome until 10 p.m. Wednesday on a school bus commandeered by a resourceful 20-year-old."

  9. September 1: "On Thursday, after FEMA took over the evacuation, aviation director Roy A. Williams complained that 'we are packed with evacuees and the planes are not being loaded and there are gaps of two or three hours when no planes are arriving.' Eventually, he started fielding 'calls from airlines saying, "Well, we are being told by FEMA that you don't need any planes." And of course we need planes. I had thousands of people on the concourses.'"


Los Angeles Times, "Confusion at Crunch Time"

  1. "The Federal Emergency Management Agency, responsible for supervising relief and rescue operations, failed to position adequate equipment to carry out the dual assignments. FEMA was especially short of helicopters from the outset. It was forced to concentrate on rescue missions and gave short shrift to ferrying supplies to trapped evacuees."

  2. "More than 50 civilian aircraft responding to separate requests for evacuations from hospitals and other agencies swarmed to the area a day after Katrina hit, but FEMA blocked their efforts."

  3. "Telephones and radios failed everywhere, complicating efforts to monitor field conditions and coordinate response. FEMA officials were caught by surprise."

  4. "Despite pre-positioning of some manpower and supplies, FEMA had failed to provide sufficient emergency aircraft, boats and vehicles to get residents out of New Orleans and to deliver enough food, water and medical supplies to those who were stranded."

  5. "On the day the levees failed, the FEMA chief issued a news release urging fire and emergency services departments outside the area 'not to respond' to calls for help from counties and states affected by the hurricane 'without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities under mutual aid agreements.'"

  6. "National Public Radio asked Chertoff about the thousands of people camped around New Orleans' Convention Center who said no food or supplies had arrived. Chertoff said that sounded to him like nothing more than a rumor. 'I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who do not have food and water,' he said."


Time, "Places Where the System Broke Down"

  1. "While people were dying in New Orleans, the U.S.S. Bataan steamed offshore, its six operating rooms, beds for 600 patients and most of its 1,200 sailors idle.

  2. Foreign nations responding to urgent calls from Washington readied rescue supplies, then were told to stand by for days until FEMA could figure out what to do with them."

  3. "Last Thursday, as the Red Cross began distributing its own debit cards, thousands stood for hours in the 93 (degree) heat outside the Astrodome in Houston for FEMA cards that never came."

Kevin Drum 1:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ROGER FEDERER....Congratulations to Roger Federer, native of Oberwil, Switzerland, for his U.S. Open win over Andre Agassi today. Oberwil may not be my ancestral village of Boniswil, but it's probably about as close as any world champion in anything is likely to get.

Aside from being a scarily good tennis player, Federer is also a scarily level headed person. Unlike, say, Bjorn Borg or Chris Evert, who seemed to have an inhuman ability to suppress emotion on the court, Federer seems to be so genuinely grounded that a small thing like losing a point just doesn't strike him as worth fussing over. Remarkable.

Kevin Drum 7:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MIKE BROWN WATCH....The Rocky Mountain News prints an email that FEMA director Mike Brown recently sent to a few close friends:

I don't mind the negative press (well, actually, I do, but I try to ignore it) but it is really wearing out the family. No wonder people don't go into public service. This country is devouring itself, the 24-hour news cycle is numbing our ability to think for ourselves.

Um, Brownie, wasn't part of your problem the fact that you weren't paying attention to the 24-hour news cycle? Just asking.....

Kevin Drum 4:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FOUR YEARS LATER....I don't know that I agree with everything Mark Danner writes today in the New York Times Magazine, but this strikes me as exactly right:

Four years after we watched the towers fall, Americans have not succeeded in "ridding the world of evil." We have managed to show ourselves, our friends and most of all our enemies the limits of American power.

....In Iraq, the insurgents have presided over a catastrophic collapse in confidence in the Americans and a concomitant fall in their power....While the American death toll climbs steadily toward 2,000, the number of Iraqi dead probably stands at 10 times that and perhaps many more; no one knows.

....In the midst of it all, increasingly irrelevant, are the Americans, who have the fanciest weapons but have never had sufficient troops, or political will, to assert effective control over the country...."The illusionists," Ambassador John Negroponte's people called their predecessors, the officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer III. Now, day by day, the illusion is slipping away, and with it what authority the Americans had in Iraq. What is coming to take its place looks increasingly like a failed state.

Immediately after 9/11, as neocon influence over the Bush administration reached its peak, they finally got what they had long wanted: a war in Iraq to serve as the centerpiece and final vindication of their distinctive notions of "national greatness" and American power. Several years on, though, it's clear that what they've really accomplished is just the opposite: an unmistakable demonstration of the limits of American power, as well as the limits of the American public's tolerance for overseas wars that have only veiled and esoteric connections to national security. In the end, I suspect that the war in Iraq will be for neoconservatism what the war on poverty ended up being for 60s liberalism: its Waterloo.

Kevin Drum 3:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CONFLATE....Over at Matt Yglesias' site, commenter Petey takes a break from accusing Matt of disingenuousness in order to pose a linguistic observation:

I'm slowly becoming more and more obsessed with the word conflate.

In my mind, although the dictionary doesn't support this, it specifically means an incorrect melding. The dictionary just defines it as any old fusing or melding.

I'm guessing my definition is the common usage. I've never seen anyone use the word who wasn't implying an incorrect melding.

My obsession comes from how often the word is useful in political discussion. If you're trying to identify the fallacy the administration keeps repeating in tying the Iraq invasion to the 9/11, what works better than saying they're conflating two separate issues?

Probably lots of things, actually, since most people have never heard the word "conflate" in their lives. In fact, two years ago I noted that I had never heard the word before in my life until sometime in 2002, and then I suddenly noticed it popping up everywhere.

So what's the deal? Is it just a favored word among political chatterers? (Though I had never seen it in 20 years of op-ed reading.) Among the extremely well educated? Among the blogosphere?

Or is it just one of those words that suddenly seems just right to describe key aspects of our current political climate, sort of like "Orwellian" and "weapons of mass destruction program related activities"? Any ideas?

UPDATE: From comments, it appears that "conflate" is a common word in academic circles, which sounds about right to me. Since the blogosphere is positively lousy with academics, it seems reasonable that perhaps this is the source of its popularity here.

But how about the outside world? As a check, I just did a quick Nexis search for "conflate" and its derivatives in the New York Times, and there's been no increase in usage over the past five years. So apparently it really is just an academia-inspired blog thing.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BUBBLE....More on George Bush's "bubble" from Newsweek:

The reality [of Katrina], say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night.

....How this could behow the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a centuryis one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.

President George W. Bush has always trusted his gut. He prides himself in ignoring the distracting chatter, the caterwauling of the media elites, the Washington political buzz machine. He has boasted that he doesn't read the papers. His doggedness is often admirable. It is easy for presidents to overreact to the noise around them.

But it is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography and an hour or two of ESPN here and there. Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty.

....Late last week, Bush was, by some accounts, down and angry. But another Bush aide described the atmosphere inside the White House as "strangely surreal and almost detached." At one meeting described by this insider, officials were oddly self-congratulatory, perhaps in an effort to buck each other up. Life inside a bunker can be strange, especially in defeat.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE AT THE TONE....Time magazine does a decent job of explaining what went wrong at all levels in the aftermath of Katrina, but the paragraph that really struck me was this one, which describes Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco's attempts to get help from Washington:

The day the storm hit, she asked President Bush for "everything you've got." But almost nothing arrived, and she couldn't wait any longer. So she called the White House and demanded to speak to the President. George Bush could not be located, two Louisiana officials told Time, so she asked for chief of staff Andrew Card, who was also unavailable. Finally, after being passed to another office or two, she left a message with DHS adviser Frances Frago Townsend. She waited hours but had to make another call herself before she finally got Bush on the line. "Help is on the way," he told her.

She had to leave a message?

In a companion article, Mike Allen describes the "bubble" Bush lives in and how it prevents him from hearing bad news this time to disastrous effect. But he also notes that although the plan to actually deal with Katrina was poor, the plan to save the president's political bacon is just revving up:

By late last week, Administration aides were describing a three-part comeback plan. The first: Spend freely, and worry about the tab and the consequences later....The second tactic could be summed up as, Don't look back. The White House has sent delegates to meetings in Washington of outside Republican groups who have plans to blame the Democrats and state and local officials.

....The third move:...Advisers are proceeding with plans to gin up base-conservative voters...focused around tax reform....no plans to delay tax cuts...veto anticipated congressional approval of increased federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research.

Now that Karl Rove is back from his kidney stone surgery, I'm sure his plans to "gin up base-conservative voters" will move into high gear indeed.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FEMA'S FAILURES....In the same Instapundit post I linked to yesterday which asked whether Mike Brown was really any worse than past FEMA directors Jeff Goldstein is quoted as asking another question: "I just want SOMEBODY to point out FEMAs actual failures instead of using disputed resume blemishes and a lot of showy handwringing to suggest Browns failures."

Have FEMA's failures really been forgotten so quickly? Tens of thousands people trapped at the Superdome and the Convention Center without food or water? No buses available for evacuation? Lack of coordination with the National Guard and Northcom? Helicopters, trucks, the Red Cross, and other aid either ignored or turned away? That hasn't been forgotten in less than a week, has it?

Perhaps it has. Luckily, this being Sunday, all three of the national dailies feature long, detailed tick-tocks on their front pages today explaining what went wrong in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what FEMA's actual failures were. Here they are:

As these stories make clear, there's blame to go around. But as they also make clear, FEMA's failures were extensive and systemic, and much of its feeble response was due to poor planning, poor execution, a lack of leadership from George Bush, and the inexperience of Bush appointee Mike Brown, who found himself in over his head when the worst happened.

Kevin Drum 3:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

"BEFORE OR AFTER?"....In the LA Times, Jack Burditt visits the Sony HD 500 in Fontana and talks to a NASCAR dad to find out what he thinks of George Bush:

I asked him, "So you vote Republican?" "Yep," he replied. "Always?" "Pretty much." "So you like Bush?" "Before or after the hurricane?"

Kevin Drum 7:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A FEMA PRIMER....A reader writes to Instapundit about FEMA chief Mike Brown: "I'm not defending cronyism, but....how different are these men's bona fides from previous FEMA heads? Shouldn't we know that as well?"

Here at the Washington Monthly we live to answer questions like this, so here's a summary of the background and general reputations of the four most recent heads of FEMA, listed chronologically. Connecting each FEMA chief to the president who appointed him is left as an exercise for the reader:

  • 1990-1992: Wallace Stickney, head of New Hampshire's Department of Transportation.

    Washington Monthly: "Stickney's only apparent qualification for the post was that he was a close friend and former next door neighbor of Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu."

    House Appropriations Committee report: "A weak, uninterested executive who has little interest in the agency's substantive programs."

  • 1993-2000: James Lee Witt, Director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services.

    Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency: 76 Case Studies in Presidential Leadership, ed. David Abshire: "As amazing as it sounds, Witt was the first FEMA head who came to the position with direct experience in emergency management....On Witt's recommendation, Clinton filled most of the FEMA jobs reserved for political appointees with persons who had previous experience in natural disasters and intergovernmental relations."

    Senator James Inhofe (R-OK): "I haven't spent a lot of time complimenting the President on his appointments, but I sure did on this one."

    George W. Bush: "I have to pay the administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis."

  • 2001-2002: Joe Allbaugh, Bush chief of staff and National Campaign Manager for Bush-Cheney 2000.

    Slate: "Almost nothing is known about Allbaugh except that he's from Oklahoma, that he has a flat-top haircut, that he rides herd on campaign spending, and that Dubya calls him "Big Country." Allbaugh is famously press-shy and has somehow managed to make it through the entire campaign without having a major magazine or newspaper profile written about him."

    Joe Allbaugh, explaining his view of FEMA's role: "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters."

    Claire Rubin, senior researcher at George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management: "Allbaugh? He was inept."

  • 2003-Present: Michael Brown, Commissioner of Judges and Stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association.

    The New Republic: "He was, among other things, a failed former lawyer a man with a 20-year-old degree from a semi-accredited law school who hadn't attempted to practice law in a serious way in nearly 15 years and who had just been forced out of his job in the wake of charges of impropriety....Yet he was also what's known in the Mafia as a 'connected guy.'"

    ABC News: "We and other news organizations reported that Brown was college roommates with a man who recommended him for the job, former FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh. Allbaugh told us that was not correct. They were friends, but not roommates."

    Stephen Jones, a former employer: "He was average. Maybe that's the best way to put it." On learning that Brown was under consideration as deputy director of FEMA: "You're surely kidding?"

    Washington Post: "In his last extended TV interview on CNN, Brown admitted Thursday that the federal government did not know that thousands of survivors without food or water had taken shelter at the city's convention center, despite a day of news reports."

Which of these four is not like the other?

Kevin Drum 6:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MIKE BROWN WATCH....I suppose that piling on FEMA chief Mike Brown will get old eventually, but this is too rich not to pass along:

In 2002, a pair of FBI agents showed up at a small, well-known law firm near Oklahoma City, asking questions about Mike Brown, a former employee being considered for a job at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There, Stephen Jones, a lawyer best known for defending bomber Timothy McVeigh, recalled how he hired Brown fresh from law school two decades earlier. He'd been impressed by Brown's stint on a nearby city council.

But just a few years later, Jones and the other four partners decided to split the firm. To minimize job loss, they unanimously agreed to keep 35 of their 37 employees. Brown was not one of them.

"He did not develop the way we wanted," Jones said this week. "He was average. Maybe that's the best way to put it."

Brown was pleasant enough, if a bit opportunistic, Jones said, but he did not put enough time and energy into his job. "He would have been better suited to be a small city or county lawyer," he said. Jones was surprised Brown was being considered for job at FEMA but figured it wasn't impossible he could have risen high enough in local and state government to be considered for a job directing FEMA operations in Oklahoma.

The agents quickly corrected him. This was a national post in Washington, deputy director of FEMA, the arm of the federal government that prepares for and responds to disasters around the United States.

Jones looked at the agents, "You're surely kidding?"

Via Laura Rozen.

Kevin Drum 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CLUELESS, PART 2....Last week I rounded up some clueless quotes about Katrina from our friends on the right side of aisle. Here's a new collection from the past few days:

  • Mark Williams, explaining why things would have gone better if New Orleans had more white people: "They didn't have the necessary brains and common sense to get out of the way of a Cat 5 Hurricane....The only role race plays in this is that the American black population has been the prototype for an entire race of people being, being turned into a group of dependents of the government trapped there, I'm using that word very loosely are screaming we want help, we want help."

  • Tom DeLay, chatting with a couple of young evacuees who are now living in a tent in Houston: "Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?"

  • Steve Sailer, displaying his trademark scientific approach to issues of race and poverty: "In contrast to New Orleans, there was only minimal looting after the horrendous 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan because, when you get down to it, Japanese aren't blacks."

  • Rep. Richard Baker (R-Baton Rouge), musing with his lobbyist pals about one of the silver linings from Katrina's destruction of New Orleans: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

  • Rick Santorum (R-Law & Order-SVU), displaying his trademark sensitivity to the plight of the poor caught in Katrina's path: "There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving."

  • Hugh Hewitt, explaining that, as usual, the odious MSM is responsible for everything, including all the dead people in New Orleans: "[Reporters] did not do their homework, because they did not understand the levees were the threat, they ended up killing hundreds of Americans. I'm not going to say thousands, because I don't know the number. But I know hundreds are dead, that they did not communicate the severity of this storm."

  • Barbara Bush, wittily showing off the Bush family's famous compassion toward the poor after a visit to the Astrodome: "So many of the people here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

  • Robert Tracinski, in a widely emailed missive, picking up where Mark Williams and Steve Sailer left off: "But what about criminals and welfare parasites? Do they worry about saving their houses and property? They don't, because they don't own anything. Do they worry about what is going to happen to their businesses or how they are going to make a living? They never worried about those things before. Do they worry about crime and looting? But living off of stolen wealth is a way of life for them."

I'm sure I've only scratched the surface here, so feel free to add your own favorites in comments.

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

MEANWHILE IN BAGHDAD....The airport has been shut down over a dispute with a contracting firm.

Paul Glastris 10:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SAVAGERY....A FOLLOWUP....I don't know if this is the most important aspect of the story I posted earlier about police in Gretna preventing desperate residents from leaving New Orleans after Katrina devastated the city, but I do have a few questions. First, here's what the UPI dispatch says:

[Gretna police chief Arthur] Lawson said that once the storm itself had passed Monday, police from Gretna City, Jefferson Parrish and the Louisiana State Crescent City Connection Police Department closed to foot traffic the three access points to the bridge closest to the West Bank of the river.

....As [residents] made their way to the bridge in order to leave the city "armed Gretna sheriffs (sic) formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads."

Take a look at the map below. The three access points to the bridge on the west side are (a) in New Orleans and (b) right next to the Convention Center.

So: what were Gretna City and Jefferson Parish police doing at the foot of a bridge in New Orleans? Why were the state bridge police cooperating with them? And how is it possible that no one in authority at the Convention Center noticed a bunch of non-New Orleans cops forming a line and threatening to shoot people for three or four consecutive days?

And some questions for Chief Lawson: You say you were running buses to Metaire, where there was food and shelter, before you closed the bridge on Monday. Why didn't you keep running them? And if you couldn't, why didn't you let people walk? Maybe even escort them? It's less than 20 miles, after all, an easy day's hike. Why did you instead threaten to shoot anyone who tried to use the highway to walk to safety?

Kevin Drum 12:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA AND IRAQ....From CNN today:

Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that "arguably" a day or so of response time was lost due to the absence of the Mississippi National Guard's 155th Infantry Brigade and Louisiana's 256th Infantry Brigade, each with thousands of troops in Iraq.

"Had that brigade been at home and not in Iraq, their expertise and capabilities could have been brought to bear," said Blum.

To be honest, I don't consider this a very strong argument against the war in Iraq, since no one suggests that National Guard troops should be kept permanently in the U.S. to deal with natural disasters. Still, we now have a pretty authoritative statement that it did make a difference. It's something people should know.

Via Professor Bainbridge, who offers a somewhat harsher assessment: "Even if Iraq won't prevent us from sustaining the response to Katrina, for a senior military official with Blum's evident experience to admit that it delayed the response is a pretty stunning admission. It's probably going to give the criticism of the administration and the GOP real traction with people of good sense and good will ... as it should."

Kevin Drum 10:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON FEMA....Seth Borenstein and Shannon McCaffrey of Knight Ridder report on the personnel implosion at FEMA under the Bush administration:

In 2000, 40 percent of the top FEMA jobs were held by career workers who rose through the ranks of the agency, including chief of staff. By 2004, that figure was down to less than 19 percent, and the deputy director/chief of staff job is held by a former TV anchor turned political operative.

....Of the top 15 FEMA spots in Washington, the only people who had experience or have a single permanent job some employees of FEMA are holding down two positions are the agency's top lawyer, its equal rights director, its technology chief and its inner-agency planning chief. None of them is responsible for disaster response or preparations.

I suspect the FEMA meltdown is only going to look worse and worse as reporters continue to investigate this. And for anyone who thinks FEMA is a unique case, be sure to reread this Washington Post story from last year about the inexperienced but ideologically acceptable kids the Bush administration hired to turn Iraq into a democracy:

For months they wondered what they had in common, how their names had come to the attention of the Pentagon, until one day they figured it out: They had all posted their resumes at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank.

FEMA is just the flip side of the CPA. Both were filled with political appointees who had little relevant background or experience, and both failed miserably.

Kevin Drum 8:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SAVAGERY....For the past couple of days I've vaguely noticed some stories circulating about police preventing people from leaving New Orleans after Katrina hit, but there have been so many urban legendish anecdotes like this making the rounds that I didn't pay much attention to it.

Big mistake. Not only is the story true, it's worse than you can imagine. It wasn't New Orleans cops keeping people in, it was cops from other cities keeping people out:

"We shut down the bridge," Arthur Lawson, chief of the City of Gretna Police Department, confirmed to United Press International.

...The bridge in question the Crescent City Connection is the major artery heading west out of New Orleans across the Mississippi River.

Lawson said that once the storm itself had passed Monday, police from Gretna City, Jefferson Parrish and the Louisiana State Crescent City Connection Police Department closed to foot traffic the three access points to the bridge closest to the West Bank of the river.

...."If we had opened the bridge, our city would have looked like New Orleans does now: looted, burned and pillaged."

[According to an eyewitness account from a pair of San Francisco paramedics who tried to leave the city], As they made their way to the bridge in order to leave the city "armed Gretna sheriffs (sic) formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads."

Members of the group nonetheless approached the police lines, and "questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge ... They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City.

"These were code words," the paramedics wrote, "for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans."

This story exposes a calculated savagery far worse than anything that happened in New Orleans. Stuff like this makes me fear for the future of the human race.

Kevin Drum 8:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FEMA BACKGROUNDERS....Just a note for anyone who wants to read about the rise and fall of FEMA, in deeply reported stories written long before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The following two pieces, taken together, do the best job I've seen of telling the story:

  • "The FEMA Phoenix," by Daniel Franklin, in the July/August 1995 issue of the Washington Monthly.

  • "Disaster in the Making," by Jon Elliston, in the September 22, 2004 issue of the Independent Weekly. (A post-Katrina followup by Elliston is here.)

Read 'em both. They tell a grim story, and neither one was motivated by any special axe to grind over Katrina.

Kevin Drum 2:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MIKE BROWN WATCH....FEMA chief Mike Brown has been sent back to Washington, but we're assured this has nothing to do with the quality of his work. On the contrary: "The department said Brown was returning to Washington to manage FEMA's national operations because it is still hurricane season."

Indeed. We need Brown's steady hand on the tiller in case Tropical Storm Ophelia decides to meander back in the direction of Florida. But perhaps this clue from the Associated Press is more meaningful:

A source close to Brown, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FEMA director had been considering leaving after the hurricane season ended in November and that Friday's action virtually assures his departure.

That's the ticket! He's been meaning to leave all along! Katrina just sort of focused his mind a bit.

Meanwhile, in other Mike Brown news, Newsday reports on yet another piece of resume padding from his 2003 nomination to head FEMA.

Kevin Drum 2:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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"A NIXON FEEL"....From Robert Novak's column on Thursday:

Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut is more liberal than nearly all his fellow Republicans, but he has tried to be a Bush loyalist. He is a member of the Homeland Security Committee and chairs the national security subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee. Consequently, it is noteworthy when he accuses the administration of "a real sense of arrogance. Loyalty and never admitting a mistake matters more than the truth. It has a Nixon feel to me."

I suppose this is an encouraging sign that perhaps Garance is right and I'm wrong. Will Republicans finally rebel against George Bush's clueless management style, the way many Democrats did against Jimmy Carter in 1980, or will they the circle the wagons and go back to business as usual as soon as the TV coverage slows down? Time will tell.

Kevin Drum 2:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HACK WATCH....I normally leave the skewering of the Hewitt/Coulter/Horowitz crowd to guys like Atrios and Kos, but this really takes the cake. Hugh Hewitt, the same guy who seriously! chastised the press last year for inadequate coverage of John Kerry's makeup, followed up yesterday by chastising them again for killing hundreds of people in New Orleans. Why? Because they failed to properly warn residents that Katrina was a big storm.

Nice try, Hugh. In the great conservative game of trying to blame the media for everything, you're #1. Blogoland has the details.

Kevin Drum 1:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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KAREN HUGHES LAYS DOWN THE LAW....Via A. Aardvark, Dana Milbank reports on a meeting Karen Hughes held on Thursday with her staff:

As if preparing troops for combat, she described her plans for improving world opinion of the United States: a "rapid-response unit," a plan to "forward-deploy regional SWAT teams" and create "a dual-headed DAS for public diplomacy."

One of her underlings rose to ask how this effort squared with the administration's famously tight control over its message. "Recently, we've had tremendous amount of difficulty in some cases getting clearance for our ambassadors to speak," he said.

Hughes replied that ambassadors are free to talk if they use the talking points she sends them. "If they make statements based on something I sent them," she said, "they're not going to be called on the carpet."

Just say exactly what we tell you and everything will be fine. It must be loads of fun to be a United States ambassador these days.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PLAYING POLITICS....Remember back in October of 2002, when George Bush took a careful look at the Department of Homeland Security an organization originally proposed by Democrats and tried to figure out how he could gin up some pre-election Democratic opposition to creating it. His answer was to insert a bit of strategic union busting into the DHS bill, something that he knew no Democrat could possibly support. Voila! Democrats opposed the bill and the president accused them of not caring about national security. That was good for a pickup of two seats in the Senate.

Fast forward to September 2005. What would be a good way of trying to gin up some Democratic opposition to reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? How about some more union busting?

One action Bush did not trumpet publicly drew a quick protest from a leading Democrat. By executive order, Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act in areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, allowing federal contractors to pay less than the local "prevailing wage" on construction projects.

Rep. George Miller of California, senior Democrat on the House committee that oversees labor law, said the move would allow employers to pay "poverty wages" as they rebuild from the hurricane.

"The administration is using the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to cut the wages of people desperately trying to rebuild their lives," he said in a statement, noting the prevailing wage for construction in New Orleans was about $9 an hour. "At under $9 an hour, workers certainly won't be able to rebuild their livelihoods," he said.

It's a good thing we have a president who doesn't believe in playing politics, isn't it?

NOTE FOR THE MATH CHALLENGED: $9 an hour is about $18,000 a year. The prevailing wage wasn't about to create any new millionaires on the Gulf Coast.

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THE MIKE BROWN STORY....Just how unqualified is Mike Brown to be head of FEMA? We already know the basic story: he was commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, was asked to leave, and then landed a plum job as general counsel of FEMA thanks to the lucky chance that he had once been the college friend of Joe Allbaugh, the former Bush chief of staff who was tapped to run FEMA in 2001. From there he was promoted to deputy head of FEMA and finally to the top job.

But wait! There's more! It turns out that "unqualified" is being too kind. For the full story, go first to Eric Umansky, who excerpts a Time investigation of Brown's early years (circa 1975-81), and then to the New Republic, where Paul Campos picks up the baton and tells the rest of Brown's life story (circa 1981-2001). The combined resume padding these two pieces document is genuinely pathetic.

Folks, Mike Brown is in a world of hurt. I almost feel sorry for him. Almost.

UPDATE: The Washington Post reports that the rest of FEMA's executive ranks aren't much better:

Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

FEMA's top three leaders Director Michael D. Brown, Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode and Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler arrived with ties to President Bush's 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation, according to the agency. Two other senior operational jobs are filled by a former Republican lieutenant governor of Nebraska anda U.S. Chamber of Commerce official who was once a political operative.

....Rhode, Brown's chief of staff, is a former television reporter who came to Washington as advance deputy director for Bush's Austin-based 2000 campaign and then the White House. He joined FEMA in April 2003 after stints at the Commerce Department and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Altshuler is a former presidential advance man. His predecessor, Scott Morris, was a media strategist for Bush with the Austin firm Maverick Media.

The story also notes a "brain drain" of experienced disaster professionals at FEMA's lower levels, "hastened in part by the appointment of leaders without backgrounds in emergency management." Wonderful.

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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REPUBLICANS AND RESULTS....Much of the discussion in the previous post revolved around the question of whether the press has been permanently energized by Katrina or whether it will soon return to its slothful he-said/she-said ways. Unfortunately, this strikes me as a moot point, since as near as I can tell press coverage of the White House has already returned to its old self.

That should bother me, I suppose, but since the press has operated this way since about World War II, it's hard to get too upset about it. Instead, what I really wonder is whether Katrina will finally wake reporters up to the storyline buried until now that has always struck me as the one that truly defines the nature of the Bush administration.

The lesson of Katrina, after all, is not that the White House is bad at handling hurricanes. The lesson is that the Bush White House doesn't care much about whether things actually work. This is why they screwed up Iraq: they had an idea of what they wanted to accomplish, but figured that good results would take care of themselves as long as they applied energy and conservative principles. It's why the Medicare prescription bill turned out to be such a Frankenstein's monster: they knew they wanted to give seniors their pills, but they didn't really care much about actually implementing a sound policy. And it's why Republicans are conducting a war on science these days: to them, science is just something that gets in the way of what they want to do. The fact that eventually you're going to run aground if science is against you doesn't seem to register with them.

Along these lines, I'd recommend that people reread two articles written a while back. The first is "Confidence Men," from the September 2002 issue of the Monthly. In it, Josh Marshall asks "why the myth of Republican competence persists, despite all the evidence to the contrary." It's a good question, and one that people might be more willing to pay attention to now that Katrina has rubbed their noses in it.

The second is "Fact Finders," published earlier this year in The New Republic. In it, Jon Chait points out that although both liberals and conservatives have dogmas and ideologies of their own, liberal policies tend to be focused on particular outcomes. If liberals can be convinced that their policies no longer produce those outcomes, they'll change them. Maybe slowly, and maybe only under pressure, but eventually they'll change them. Empirical results matter, after all.

Modern conservatives, by contrast, care far more about their principles than they do about results: "Empirical reasoning simply does not drive their thinking. What appears to be conservative economic reasoning is actually a kind of backward reasoning. It begins with the conclusion and marches back through the premises." Read the whole thing to get a better sense of Chait's case.

This is the lens that explains so much of what's happened over the past four and a half years of the Bush White House. All presidents have personal ideologies that guide them, and all presidents are loyal to their friends and their party, but most presidents also understand that they have to get things done, and that puts limits on ideology and loyalty. In the Bush White House, they don't and it doesn't.

POSTSCRIPT: In a somewhat different way, David Ignatius makes the same point today:

This is the moment for the Party of Performance to take center stage. The breakdown in public life was obvious before Katrina. We have a government that can't control its borders, can't find a viable strategy for its war in Iraq, can't organize the key agencies to address the terrorism problems it has been trumpeting. The yearning in the country for something different has been palpable this year.

I'm not quite sure what makes him think this yearning has been "palpable" this year, but it would be nice if the press picked up on it.

Kevin Drum 12:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ATTACK AND DIVIDE....Over at Tapped, Garance Franke-Ruta challenges the conventional wisdom that the Bush team is an unparalleled PR machine. The problem, she says, is that they only know how to do one thing:

They don't do empathy and generosity and unifying gestures. They have one tactic and one tactic only: attack and divide. They're great at it. But it's not what the circumstances call for, and not what the nation wants to see.

I think this is exactly right, but I'm not quite as sure as Garance that the White House is going to pay a price for this. The thing is, they might only have one tactic, but they're awfully good at it. And good doesn't just mean relentless, it means they know how to adapt it to a lot of different situations. Already, last week's images are fading, media outrage is in decline, and the Republican counterattack appears to have finally settled on a single talking point: It's disappointing that while President Bush has focused his administration's entire efforts towards saving lives and helping the victims of Katrina, there are those who are using this tragedy to score cheap political points.

Is this the Bushies' usual attack and divide strategy? Sure. But it's a pretty savvy version of it, and as the press retreats into its usual faux cluelessness and Republicans start circling the wagons, there's a good chance that it will work. Last week's images of New Orleans may have been searing, but counting on institutional memories to last longer than a week is usually a sucker's bet. It'll be business as usual by October.

UPDATE: The discussion in comments is worth checking out. More heat than light, of course, but still some interesting disagreement.

I don't think there's any question that Katrina will hurt Bush a bit, especially since he's been hurt by so many other things during the past year. It's just one more nail in the coffin. What's more, it's always possible that it will pave the way for some future screwup to do him even greater damage. Taken by itself, though, I suspect the White House will weather Katrina a lot better than New Orleans did. The press just isn't much interested in investigating the incompetence storyline that's the real lesson here.

UPDATE 2: Republican talking point above changed to reflect actual Republican talking point distributed today by the RNC.

Kevin Drum 8:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HOUSING KATRINA'S HOMELESS....Alex Tabarrok passes along a suggestion from Ed Olsen, a housing expert at the University of Virginia. Olsen notes that apartment vacancy rates in the south central region are quite high, which means that housing is already available for those who can pay for it. To that end, he has a proposal that would immediately help poor families forced from their homes in New Orleans:

Fortunately, no new federal program is required to match families suddenly needing housing with an existing stock of vacant apartments. The United States government already operates a program that would enable low-income families to pay the rent for these units. The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program currently serves about two million families throughout the country. It enables participants to occupy privately owned units renting for up to, and somewhat above, the local median rent. Enormous numbers of vacant units could be occupied immediately by families with these housing vouchers.

....To avoid delays in getting assistance to these families, the vouchers should be allocated to housing agencies on a first-come-first-served basis and any low-income family whose previous address was in the most affected areas should be deemed eligible. We should not take the time to determine the condition of the familys previous unit before granting a voucher.

This sounds like a terrific idea, and one that should be supportable on a bipartisan basis. Call your congressman.

Kevin Drum 2:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DHS AND THE PENTAGON....From yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

Many months before Hurricane Katrina, senior military officers within the Pentagon's Northern Command formed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to oversee the military contribution to homeland defense and disaster relief complained that they often were hindered from planning and working alongside other key government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. The commander of the Pentagon's Northern Command reports directly to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Retired Gen. Ralph Eberhart, who was the senior officer in Northern Command until late last year, frequently complained that he had to get approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense before he or his senior staff could work together with the Department of Homeland Security, said military officials who worked with the general.

....About a year ago Gen. Eberhart pitched a solution to senior Pentagon officials, some of his former staffers said. He pushed to create a permanent task force that would include people from Northern Command, the Pentagon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Justice Department, the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration. The members of the task force would plan and train together and during a crisis would form the core of a headquarters to oversee the relief effort. The task force would be headed by a civilian who would oversee all relief efforts if and when there were a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

Many in the Pentagon thought it a good idea, said one senior military official involved in developing the concept. But other crises such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took precedence and the idea was put on the back burner, this military official said.

UPDATE: Over at The New Republic, Spencer Ackerman provides a rundown of the military response to Katrina:

As [homeland security expert Jim] Carafano laments, "The [Pentagon] system that we have worked as it was designed. It was never designed to get masses of aid into place in 24 hours. And that's the problem."

Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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KATRINA TIMELINE....Creating timelines of Hurricane Katrina is a growth business these days. Here's a roundup:

And of course there's also my timeline, which charts the action before Katrina even existed.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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OIL FOR FOOD....The final report of the commission investigating the UN's Oil For Food program is over a thousand pages long, but Abu Aardvark has condensed it to eight bullets and a few hundred words. If you want to know enough to hold your own in cocktail party chatter, head over and check it out.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ARNOLD TO VETO GAY MARRIAGE BILL....Arnold has decided to veto a measure that would legalize same-sex marriage in California:

In a careful statement, Schwarzenegger press secretary Margita Thompson invoked the voter approval in March 2000 of Proposition 22, which said: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

"The governor believes the matter should be determined not by legislative action which would be unconstitutional but by court decision or another vote of the people of our state," the statement said. "We cannot have a system where the people vote and the Legislature derails that vote."

....The California Supreme Court is likely to decide next year whether Proposition 22 and other state laws that define marriage are constitutional.

Fine. But what if the Supreme Court decides that Prop 22 is unconstitutional? Does that mean he would then be willing to sign gay marriage legislation? Or would he just find some other excuse to punt?

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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REFUGEES....Diane Watson chimes in on the "refugee" issue:

"These are American citizens, plus they are the sons and daughters of slaves," said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles). "Calling them refugees coming from a foreign country does not apply to their status. This shows disdain for them. I'm almost calling this a hate crime."

I've used "refugees," "homeless," "evacuees," and probably other words to describe those who were forced to leave New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, and I'm happy to stop using the word "refugee" if it bothers people. But a hate crime? Please. This disaster is bad enough already without making it worse via thoughtless, incendiary rhetoric. Watson should think twice before spouting nonsense like this.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

GUN SHY?....Can you spot the common thread in these reports?

  • Reuters: "The U.S. agency leading Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts said Tuesday that it does not want the news media to photograph the dead as they are recovered."

  • Bob Brigham: "We are in Jefferson Parish, just outside of New Orleans. At the National Guard checkpoint, they are under orders to turn away all media. All of the reporters are turning theyre TV trucks around."

  • Salt Lake Tribune: "'[FEMA has] people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified,' said a Texas firefighter. 'We're sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven't been contacted yet.' The firefighter, who has encouraged his superiors back home not to send any more volunteers for now, declined to give his name because FEMA has warned them not to talk to reporters."

  • Brian Williams, NBC News: "While we were attempting to take pictures of the National Guard (a unit from Oklahoma) taking up positions outside a Brooks Brothers on the edge of the Quarter, the sergeant ordered us to the other side of the boulevard. The short version is: there won't be any pictures of this particular group of guard soldiers on our newscast tonight."

Put your guesses in comments.

Kevin Drum 9:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A FAILED CEO....I'll confess that even I'm getting a little weary of the relentless post-Katrina fault finding, much of which has now deteriorated into nitpicking over even the minor acts of disarray that are inevitable following a disaster like Katrina. But every time I start thinking we should ease up, the White House delivers yet another outrage:

At a news conference, [Nancy] Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush's choice for head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency had "absolutely no credentials."

She related that she had urged Bush at the White House on Tuesday to fire Michael Brown.

"He said 'Why would I do that?'" Pelosi said.

"'I said because of all that went wrong, of all that didn't go right last week.' And he said 'What didn't go right?'"

Andrew Sullivan responds:

I must say that the Katrina response does help me better understand the situation in Iraq. The best bet is that the president doesn't actually know what's happening there, is cocooned from reality, has no one in his high-level staff able to tell him what's actually happening, and has created a culture of denial and loyalty that makes fixing mistakes or holding people accountable all but impossible.

I wish the few remaining adults in the Republican leadership understood this: Bush is indeed a CEO president, but he's a bad CEO. It's time for the board of directors to do something.

Alternatively, there's Marshall Wittman's take: "We have a man-child as President of the United States."

UPDATE: David Ignatius has similar thoughts. He also notes that the Bush/Rove team is spectacularly good at managing politics, which makes their deficiencies in managing the real world all the more apparent.

Kevin Drum 2:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BANKRUPTCIES AND KATRINA....Bankruptcy filings have been rising steadily in the United States for the past two decades, but Peter Gosselin reports today on research that confirms what ought to be obvious: they grow a lot faster in states that have been hit by a natural disaster.Three years after a major hurricane hits, bankruptcy filings in landfall states increase nearly 20 percentage points more than in unaffected states.

The new bankruptcy law passed in March is aimed at making bankruptcy more difficult, and it's specifically aimed at making it harder for filers who make more than the median income in their state which in Louisiana is about $51,000 for a family of four. And while the law has a "special circumstances" clause, not everyone is impressed:

Critics of the new law say many filers will not be able to qualify for leniency because of paperwork rules, among other reasons. The law says the debtor "shall be required to itemize each additional expense or adjustment to income and to provide...documentation...and a detailed explanation" under oath.

"There's no way many people are going to be able to provide all this paperwork; it's underwater," said Keith Lundin, a federal bankruptcy judge for the eastern district of Tennessee and a longtime opponent of the overhaul.

Bottom line: maybe the new bill is flexible enough to take Katrina into account, maybe it's not. But why take chances? If Republicans in Congress have time to slash Medicaid and pass another round of tax cuts for the rich, surely they have time to craft some language ensuring that no one is prevented from filing bankruptcy because they lost everything in Hurricane Katrina?

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FINGER POINTING....Max Boot, meet Arianna Huffington.

I have some sympathy for Max's point of view, but I think Arianna wins this one on points.

UPDATE: Even the New York Post and the Washington Times are pointing fingers at the feds. When a Republican administration has lost even those two, it's time to give up and face the music.

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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AID FROM CANADA....Canadian zillionaire Frank Stronach dispatched his assistant to Florida last Thursday with a crazy idea: figure out a way to evacuate 300 Katrina refugees to an empty training facility for grooms and thoroughbred trainers owned by his company. And do it fast:

Mr. Mills immediately began working with FEMA and the Red Cross to cut through the red tape and line up several hundred candidates for the airlift. The first evacuees landed in Montgomery, Ala., where buses picked them up.

"These people were traumatized," Mr. Mills says. "The first planeload of 126 was basically people they'd fished out of the bayou that morning. We had 90-year-olds, kids, pregnant women. We headed straight for Wal-Mart and bought all the food we could carry."

Stronach's plan is to house the refugees in the training facility for a few months and then move them into a new community he plans to build in Louisiana. The total cost is estimated at about $3 million. I like his management philosophy:

The great thing about a large company that makes a profit is that you have the capability to jump in and be helpful right away.

Good for him. I hope lots of American corporations follow suit.

Kevin Drum 1:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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GAY MARRIAGE IN CALIFORNIA....A couple of hours ago, the California Assembly passed AB 849, the nation's first same-sex marriage law not prompted by a court order. We may have our problems, but this is one reason I love living here. Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Paleolithic) provided the opposing argument:

It's not about civil rights or personal rights, it's about acceptance. They want to be accepted as normal. They are not normal.

Well, apparently they are, at least in California. Mountjoy, of course, is free to move elsewhere if he disagrees.

The bill now moves to the governor's office, where Arnold will have to decide whether to sign it or not. Will he stick with his peculiar suggestion that the legislature is the wrong place to decide questions like this and we should leave it up to the courts? Or will he make up some other excuse for vetoing it even though he almost certainly has no personal objection to gay marriage? At the very least, his squirming should be entertaining. Stay tuned.

BONUS LEGAL ADDENDUM: What's the legal deal with this measure? Does it violate the California constitution? That's a good question. As near as I can tell, here's the skinny.

In 2000, California passed Proposition 22, which stated that "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." That seems pretty clear, but it turns out that things are murkier than they seem.

First, at the time it passed, California already defined marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman. The point of Prop 22, then, wasn't to define marriage in California, it was to make sure that California didn't recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The ballot argument made this point, and so did the attorney general, who renamed the initiative from "Definition of Marriage" to "Limit on Marriages," a change that was upheld by a state court. Needless to say, though, this interpretation of Prop 22's text remains controversial.

Second, Prop 22 was passed as a statutory initiative, not a constitutional initiative. This means that it might be found to violate the state constitution's equal protection and privacy clauses, something that would obviously be impossible if it were itself a constitutional amendment. (The state Supreme Court had a chance to rule on this a couple of months ago in a case related to California's domestic partnership law, but it punted and ruled on different grounds.)

Bottom line: if Arnold signs AB 849, it will be up to the courts to decide if the legislation is constitutional, and it's anyone's guess how they'll rule. However, there's also a possibility that gay marriage opponents will place another initiative measure on the 2006 ballot regardless of what Arnold or the courts do and this time they'll be more careful about how they word it. Prop 22 passed with over 60% of the vote in 2000, but there's no telling how a more blatantly anti-gay-marriage measure would fare today.

UPDATE: Actually, it turns out there are three separate anti-gay-marriage initiatives already circulating. There's one to eliminate domestic partnerships, one to eliminate domestic partnership rights, and one that specifically makes same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The homophobes are definitely trying to cover every possible contingency.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

GAS RATIONING IN IRAQ....Via Henley, Salam Pax reports that Iraq's oil ministry has responded to a fuel shortage by instituting an odd/even driving regime in Baghdad. If you have an even license plate, you can drive on even days. If you have an odd license plate, you can drive on odd days:

Ah, the memories this brings. The only other time this was done was during the Iraq/Iran war. I mention this just to point out that His Oiliness isnt even being creative with this decision he just plucked a lesson from the old regime.

....Schools are going to start soon so are you going to, magically from under your turban, produce a fleet of school buses which will shuttle the kids back and forth when their parents cars cant go on the streets because it is the wrong day? What about government employees? Do you have any idea what the public transport system is like? Oh sorry there is no such thing, I forgot your government washed its hands clean of that sticky situation so you dont care.

CNN has the MSM version of the story here. They report that taxi drivers are pissed.

Of course, a far more efficient way to reduce demand for fuel would be to raise the price from its current four cents per gallon, but apparently that's out of the question. There's a lesson here in the fact that government officials think that raising the price of gasoline would cause even greater unrest than forbidding people to drive on half the days of the week, a rule that I would otherwise think was deliberately designed to cause maximal unrest. I'm not quite sure what that lesson is, but I'm pretty sure it's not a good one.

Kevin Drum 10:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

REFORM IN THE MIDDLE EAST....Abu Aardvark passes along the conclusions from a recent study about the roots of support for terrorism in the Islamic world:

One set of findings wasn't surprising, but bears noting: the data consistently show that there is no relationship between levels of personal religiosity and attitudes towards democracy. Such findings should eventually begin to wear down the view that Islam is somehow incompatible with procedural democracy.

But the really interesting part was this: he ran regressions on nine different families of variables everything from education to gender to religiosity to income to find out what best explained expressions of support for terrorism. None of these shows any stasticially significant relationship. The only independent variables significantly correlated with support for terrorism were "negative views of U.S. foreign policy" and and here's the interesting part "negative views of one's own political system."

In other words, promoting systemic reform in Middle Eastern autocracies is probably good for the United States. It kills two birds with one stone, so to speak.

The aardvark also has some good words for Karen Hughes in her new role as head of public diplomacy in the State Department. Apparently she's on the right track.

Kevin Drum 9:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSING BUBBLE UPDATE....Via email, a reader points out that the median price for new houses has plunged 14% in the past three months. (The raw data from the Department of Commerce is here. Note that mean prices are also down, though not by nearly as much.)

I really don't know what to make of this. The original source is here, and it's not exactly someone I'd take seriously. Still, data is data, and this is a big drop.

So....take this for what it's worth. None of the usual suspects seem to be pointing to this as a harbinger of doom, but you sure wouldn't expect median prices to be dropping if the market were still bullish, would you?

Kevin Drum 7:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HAMMER, MEET NAIL....What's the big lesson from Katrina? The country desperately needs more tax cuts! Tapped has the story.

Kevin Drum 3:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SO LONG, MIKE?....Has FEMA chief Mike Brown already been effectively fired? Laura Rozen thinks the answer is yes.

UPDATE: The rest of the top brass at FEMA looks to be even less qualified than Brown to run an emergency management agency. Here's a thought: in the future, it would be nice if George Bush insisted on hiring experienced disaster management professionals for the top spots in a disaster management agency.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EXCUSES....Last week, even conservatives couldn't conceal their outrage over the feeble response to Hurricane Katrina from the federal government. Within a few days, though, cooler heads began to realize that Republicans could really be hurt by this. So now they're test driving a whole set of alternate storylines, all of which share one common virtue: they don't blame George W. Bush for the gradual decimation of FEMA and the sclerotic decision making at the federal level during the first few critical days after Katrina hit. Here's a sampling so far:

  1. It was the fault of state and local authorities. They never asked for help.

  2. The poor people of New Orleans were too stupid to evacuate when they should have.

  3. Nobody knew that Katrina was going to be so bad. Nobody could have guessed that New Orleans would be flooded in the aftermath.

  4. Mississippi is doing fine. Just goes to show what a strong Republican governor can do for you.

#5 is left blank for you to fill in in comments. What other excuses are being run up the flagpole? And which ones are gaining/losing popularity? Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND KATRINA....For what it's worth, I'd like to make absolutely clear why I hold George Bush accountable for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. First, though, here's what I don't blame him for.

I don't blame him for being on vacation when Katrina made landfall. I don't blame him for a certain amount of chaos in the initial response that's inevitable no matter how good your plan is. I don't blame him for rolling FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security. I don't blame him for focusing more on terrorism than on natural disasters. That was a natural reaction to 9/11.

Nor do I think that Bush doesn't care about natural disasters. It's not as if he sat down one day and decided that hurricanes were no longer worth worrying about.

Obviously Bush deserves criticism for his listless lack of leadership and life-as-usual politicking in the first three days after Katrina hit. Beyond that, though, what happened was the result of a long series of decisions, all flowing out of Bush's natural conservative governing instincts, that added up to make Katrina more damaging than it had to be and at the same time eroded our ability to react to its aftermath. These decisions were deliberate and disastrous, and that's why I think Bush deserves a large part of the blame for what happened.

Because I think this is the most important part of the story, I'm going to reprint a chronology I originally posted last week. It tells the story of what happened over the past four and a half years of George Bush's presidency that led to the events of last week:

  • January 2001: Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh, a crony from Texas, as head of FEMA. Allbaugh has no previous experience in disaster management.

  • April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces the Bush administration's goal of privatizing much of FEMA's work. In May, Allbaugh confirms that FEMA will be downsized: "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program...." he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

  • 2001: FEMA designates a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country."

  • December 2002: After less than two years at FEMA, Allbaugh announces he is leaving to start up a consulting firm that advises companies seeking to do business in Iraq. He is succeeded by his deputy and former college friend, Michael Brown, who has no previous experience in disaster management and was fired from his previous job for mismanagement.

  • March 2003: FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting acts of terrorism.

  • 2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.

  • Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. Says Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: "You would think we would get maximum consideration....This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it."

  • June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri comments: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay."

  • June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes.

  • August 2005: While New Orleans is undergoing a slow motion catastrophe, Bush mugs for the cameras, cuts a cake for John McCain, plays the guitar for Mark Wills, delivers an address about V-J day, and continues with his vacation. When he finally gets around to acknowledging the scope of the unfolding disaster, he delivers only a photo op on Air Force One and a flat, defensive, laundry list speech in the Rose Garden.

So: A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA. Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration's conservative agenda to reduce the role of government. After DHS was created, FEMA's preparation and planning functions were taken away.

Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It's the Bush administration in a nutshell.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PARENTS AND CHILDREN....If you lose your job, your income goes down. No surprise there.

In fact, it turns out that if you lose your job, your income is permanently lowered. That's a little more surprising, but still plausible.

But there's more: it turns out that if you lose your job, your children have permanently lower incomes too. Via Brad DeLong:

Using a Canadian panel of administrative data that follows almost 60,000 father-child pairs....we find that children whose fathers were displaced have annual earnings about 9% lower than similar children whose fathers did not experience an employment shock. They are also more likely to receive unemployment insurance and social assistance.

Actually, the results of this study were even worse than the summary indicates. The authors used a large Canadian dataset to compare two comparable groups of families in the year 1982. Both groups of families had similar incomes and worked in similar industries, and only children of similar age (12-14) were included in the study. However, the fathers in the first group all lost their jobs due to a plant closure, and as the chart shows, these fathers experienced a sharp decline in income that they never fully made up.

The more surprising result is that two decades later, the grown children of the two families had substantially different incomes too. But the effects weren't evenly distributed:

The displacement effects appear to be concentrated among those families for whom fathers earnings are in the lowest quartile. Among children in this group subsequent earnings are 17% lower than they would have been if the father had not been displaced, and the probability of social assistance and [unemployment insurance] receipt are 4 and 6 percentage points higher. In contrast, there is no evidence that there is any intergenerational effect among families in the top two quartiles.

In other words, children of families with above average incomes did fine. Children of families with low incomes, however, were devastated by the plant closures: by 1999 their incomes were still 17% lower than similar children whose fathers didn't lose their jobs.

You hear a lot of talk from conservatives mainly ones who want to find excuses not to fund social programs about the effect of traits like IQ on things like income levels and the likelihood of receiving welfare. And it's true that there's a correlation: children of low IQ parents tend to have lower incomes than children of high IQ parents. However, the effect is nowhere near 17%. The importance of studies like this, then, is to remind us that, especially at low income levels, the effect of environmental catastrophes can be far higher than the effect of heritable abilities. We can do something about environment and it does make a big difference. Many conservatives would like to pretend otherwise, but the data doesn't back them up.

Kevin Drum 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

DAMAGE CONTROL....From Monday's New York Times:

Under the command of President Bush's two senior political advisers, the White House rolled out a plan this weekend to contain the political damage from the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

It orchestrated visits by cabinet members to the region, leading up to an extraordinary return visit by Mr. Bush planned for Monday, directed administration officials not to respond to attacks from Democrats on the relief efforts, and sought to move the blame for the slow response to Louisiana state officials, according to Republicans familiar with the White House plan.

The effort is being directed by Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and his communications director, Dan Bartlett.

Now. I don't mean to be picky. But maybe a more effective way to "contain the political damage" would be for the president to try that whole responsibility thing he's always talking about, and say something like: "We screwed up. I am very, very sorry." Also, maybe: "And instead of wasting time and resources by having my staff work at finding ways to blame anyone else for all of this, I'm going to put all hands on deck to deal with this awful tragedy that requires our full and complete attention."

Just a suggestion.

Amy Sullivan 1:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA AND THE MEDIA....The BBC's Matt Wells writes that Hurricane Katrina may have saved the U.S. media:

Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back, thanks to Katrina.

....The most spectacular example came last Friday night on Fox News....with the sick and the dying forced to sit in their own excrement behind him in New Orleans, its early-evening anchor Shepard Smith declared civil war against the studio-driven notion that the biggest problem was still stopping the looters.

On other networks like NBC, CNN and ABC it was the authority figures, who are so used to an easy ride at press conferences, that felt the full force of reporters finally determined to ditch the deference.

As the heads of the Homeland Security department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) appeared for network interviews, their defensive remarks about where aid was arriving to, and when, were exposed immediately as either downright lies or breath-taking ignorance.

Wells seems to think Katrina might be the final straw that finally wakes up the media for good. I'm not so sure, myself: once the images fade, memories may prove to be as short as ever. But I hope he's right.

Kevin Drum 7:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FEMA AND HOMELAND SECURITY....From the New York Times:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, called on President Bush on Sunday to appoint an independent national commission to examine the relief effort. She also said that she intends to introduce legislation to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and restore its previous status as an independent agency with cabinet-level status.

This is nothing more than musing on my part right now, but I think it would be a good idea to think twice before jumping on the "Get FEMA out of DHS" bandwagon. To a large degree, after all, responding to a major natural disaster and responding to a major terrorist attack require a lot of the same things. It's true that a terrorist attack might call for unique kinds of medical care and a broader security response, but the similarities make up an even longer list: food, water, medical attention, evacuation, temporary shelter, coordination with the National Guard and the Pentagon, search and rescue, and so forth. It really doesn't make sense to have two separate agencies whose missions are about 80% identical.

I may change my mind on this later as I learn more, but this is something that requires more than a knee jerk response. If DHS has done a lousy job of responding to Katrina, what's needed is a better DHS one that can respond effectively to both terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Moving the boxes around on the organizational chart isn't necessarily the answer.

Kevin Drum 2:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NORTHCOM AND KATRINA....Last time I checked, naval officers aren't in the habit of criticizing their commander in chief no matter how many punches they have to absorb in the process. It appears, however, that Lt. Commander Sean Kelly, a Pentagon spokesman for Northern Command, didn't get the memo. Asked why Northcom hadn't responded to Hurricane Katrina more quickly, he accidentally told the truth:

Northcom started planning before the storm even hit....We had the USS Bataan sailing almost behind the hurricane so once the hurricane made landfall, its search and rescue helicopters could be available almost immediately So, we had things ready.

The only caveat is: we have to wait until the president authorizes us to do so. The laws of the United States say that the military can't just act in this fashion; we have to wait for the president to give us permission.

So why didn't the president issue the orders?

More at the link. The BBC video is here.

UPDATE: Lt. Commander Sean Kelly emails with a clarification:

USNORTHCOM was prepositioned for response to the hurricane, but as per the National Response Plan, we support the lead federal agency in disaster relief in this case, FEMA. The simple description of the process is the state requests federal assistance from FEMA which in turn may request assistance from the military upon approval by the president or Secretary of Defense. Having worked the hurricanes from last year as well as Dennis this year, we knew that FEMA would make requests of the military primarily in the areas of transportation, communications, logistics, and medicine. Thus we began staging such assets and waited for the storm to hit.

The biggest hurdles to responding to the storm were the storm itself couldn't begin really helping until it passed and damage assessment figuring out which roads were passable, where communications and power were out, etc. Military helos began damage assessment and SAR on Tuesday. Thus we had permission to operate as soon as it was possible. We even brought in night SAR helos to continue the mission on Tuesday night.

The President and Secretary of Defense did authorize us to act right away and are not to blame on this end. Yes, we have to wait for authorization, but it was given in a timely manner.

Kevin Drum 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND KATRINA....In comments, Ben P notes that George Bush's approval ratings for his handling of Hurricane Katrina have fallen substantially since last week. These results are from Survey USA's 3-day tracking poll:

Wednesday: 48% approval
Thursday: 46% approval
Friday: 40% approval
Saturday: 41% approval
Sunday: 38% approval

Will "Operation Blame the Locals" prop these numbers up or just make things worse? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WAL-MART TOO SMALL TO COMPETE?....Wal-Mart is nervous that its competitors are getting too big and has suggested that antitrust authorities might want to intervene. "At some point, the government has to look at it," said Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's CEO.

It's true that Scott was talking about Britain, not the U.S., but the chutzpah is still pretty remarkable, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"AWE INSPIRING"....Obviously the full story of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina won't be written for months, but Peter Gosselin and Alan Miller tell at least part of the story today in the LA Times. First, there's the organization of FEMA itself:

The agency's core budget, which includes disaster preparedness and mitigation, has been cut each year since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Depending on what the final numbers end up being for next fiscal year, the cuts will have been between about 2% and 18%.

The agency's staff has been reduced by 500 positions to 4,735. Among the results, FEMA has had to cut one of its three emergency management teams, which are charged with overseeing relief efforts in a disaster. Where it once had "red," "white" and "blue" teams, it now has only red and white.

...."They've taken emergency management away from the emergency managers," complained Morrie Goodman, who was FEMA's chief spokesman during the Clinton administration. "These operations are being run by people who are amateurs at what they are doing."

Second, there's FEMA's attempts to shift blame to state and local authorities:

Under the law, [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff said, state and local officials must direct initial emergency operations. "The federal government comes in and supports those officials," he said.

Chertoff's remarks, which echoed earlier statements by President Bush, prompted withering rebukes both from former senior FEMA staffers and outside experts.

"They can't do that," former agency chief of staff Jane Bullock said of Bush administration efforts to shift responsibility away from Washington. "The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility....The federal government took ownership over the response," she said. Bush declared a disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi when the storm hit a week ago.

"What's awe-inspiring here is how many federal officials didn't issue any orders," said Paul C. Light, an authority on government operations at New York University.

I suspect that final quote might tell a big part of the story. Would FEMA have taken the same approach if New Orleans had been the target of a terrorist attack instead of a hurricane?

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA ROUNDUP....I've been gone all day and my inbox is now stuffed to capacity. Here's a small selection:

  • An ABC News poll reports that 46% of the country approves of President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina. Needless to say, this is rather astonishing. Even if you're a more forgiving sort than I am, what exactly has he done that deserves approval?

  • CNN reports that a "state-of-the-art mobile hospital" developed specifically for responding to disasters like Katrina, was "marooned in rural Mississippi" because Louisiana officials for several days would not let them deploy to New Orleans. Other doctors trying to volunteer their services report similar problems.

  • The Washington Post has corrected its statement attributed to a "senior Bush official" that Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco failed to declare a state of emergency in Louisiana. No word, though, on whether the Post reporters were blatantly lied to or if they somehow misinterpreted what they were told.

  • The Chicago Tribune reports that the USS Bataan, a naval vessel with "helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water," has been cruising off the Gulf since last Friday. Its captain says they're ready and willing to help, but aside from using its helicopters to ferry supplies and people around, FEMA hasn't asked for any. The Bataan's doctors, crew, and medical facilities lie unused.

  • Aaron Broussard, the head of Jefferson Parish, tells Tim Russert about FEMA's performance: "We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. FEMA we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, "Come get the fuel right away." When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. "FEMA says don't give you the fuel." Yesterday yesterday FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice."

  • The Washington Post reports that the Army Corps of Engineers knew by early Monday that the 17th Street Canal levee had broken. That means the full scope of the disaster was known almost immediately after Katrina hit New Orleans.

I'm sure there's more, but that's as much as I can dig up at the moment. Hopefully tomorrow will bring some brighter news.

Kevin Drum 2:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DEATH TOLL IN NEW ORLEANS....The death toll from Katrina is going to be immense:

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told CNN on Sunday it is "evident it's in the thousands."

....A senior military commander on duty in New Orleans was no more optimistic.

"Maybe 3,000, maybe 5,000. God, we hope it's no more than 10,000," he told CNN.

Kevin Drum 2:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FACTUALLY CHALLENGED....From the Washington Post today:

Tens of thousands of people spent a fifth day awaiting evacuation from this ruined city, as Bush administration officials blamed state and local authorities for what leaders at all levels have called a failure of the country's emergency management....As of Saturday, [Louisiana governor Kathleen] Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, [a] senior Bush official said.

Hmmm. Is this statement from a "senior Bush official" true? Why no. No it's not:

August 26: Blanco declares a state level state of emergency.

August 27: Blanco asks the president to declare a federal state of emergency for the state of Louisiana.

August 27: Bush declares a federal state of emergency for Louisiana.

Better liars please.

Kevin Drum 2:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT WENT WRONG....I don't have much doubt that there's plenty of blame to go around on the subject of Hurricane Katrina, but the plain truth is that a disaster like this will always overwhelm state and local authorities no matter what. That's why we have FEMA. In the Washington Post, Susan Glasser and Josh White tell the story of what happened:

The roots of last week's failures will be examined for weeks and months to come, but early assessments point to a troubled Department of Homeland Security that is still in the midst of a bureaucratic transition, a "work in progress," as [former DHS official Suzanne] Mencer put it. Some current and former officials argued that as it worked to focus on counterterrorism, the department has diminished the government's ability to respond in a nuts-and-bolts way to disasters in general, and failed to focus enough on threats posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in particular. From an independent Cabinet-level agency, FEMA has become an underfunded, isolated piece of the vast DHS, yet it is still charged with leading the government's response to disaster.

"It's such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on September 11," said a veteran FEMA official involved in the hurricane response. "We are so much less than what we were in 2000," added another senior FEMA official. "We've lost a lot of what we were able to do then."

...."The federal system that was perfected in the '90s has been deconstructed," said [former FEMA chief of staff Jane] Bullock. Citing a study that found that the United States now spends $180 million a year to fend off natural hazards vs. $20 billion annually against terrorism, Bullock said, "FEMA has been marginalized....There is one focus and the focus is on terrorism."

....On the Friday before Katrina hit, when it was already a Category 2 hurricane rapidly gathering force in the Gulf, a veteran FEMA employee arrived at the newly activated Washington headquarters for the storm. Inside, there was surprisingly little action. "It was like nobody's turning the key to start the engine," the official recalled.

....DHS did not ask the U.S. military to assist in pre-hurricane evacuation efforts, despite well-known estimates that a major hurricane would cause levees in New Orleans to fail. In an interview, the general charged with operations for the military's Northern Command said such a request to help with the evacuation "did not come our way."

Here's the part I don't get and I mean I genuinely don't get it, regardless of who's at fault here. Everyone suggests that part of the problem is that FEMA's focus was redirected toward terrorism after 9/11. In and of itself, this is neither surprising nor wrong. But the requirements to respond to a major terrorist attack on a U.S. city are largely identical to the requirements for responding to a hurricane like Katrina: food, medicine, maintenance of order, evacuation, and temporary shelter. So what are FEMA's plans for responding to, say, a large scale chemical weapon attack on Chicago? They'd have less warning than they did with Katrina and the requirements for aid would be largely similar. What would they do?

Kevin Drum 12:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COPY DESK KUDOS....This headline was only up for a few minutes on the Washington Post website, but I think it pretty well encapsulates the Bush administration's basic game plan for Hurricane Katrina. From the linked story: "Bush, who has been criticized, even by supporters, for the delayed response to the disaster, used his weekly radio address to put responsibility for the failure on lower levels of government....In a Washington briefing, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said one reason federal assets were not used more quickly was 'because our constitutional system really places the primary authority in each state with the governor.'"

Kevin Drum 1:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

REHNQUIST DIES....Chief Justice William Rehnquist has just died.

Kevin Drum 11:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BEHIND THE CURTAIN....George Bush's photo-op tour of New Orleans yesterday has apparently driven Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu over the edge. Today she blasted FEMA for its feeble response to Hurricane Katrina and Bush for his phony, stage managed promises of action:

I understand that the U.S. Forest Service had water-tanker aircraft available to help douse the fires raging on our riverfront, but FEMA has yet to accept the aid. When Amtrak offered trains to evacuate significant numbers of victims far more efficiently than buses FEMA again dragged its feet. Offers of medicine, communications equipment and other desperately needed items continue to flow in, only to be ignored by the agency.

But perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment. The good and decent people of southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast black and white, rich and poor, young and old deserve far better from their national government.

I'm almost worn out with anger reading about the decimation of FEMA under Bush's watch; the pathetic lack of response to Katrina from the federal government; the relentless television images of human degradation; and the endless excuses from administration hacks pretending that nobody could have predicted Katrina's devastation. I realize that it's no different from what's been happening in Iraq for the past two years, but Iraq is 8,000 miles away and the truth is that no matter how angry we are at what's going on there, it's to some extent an intellectual anger. What's happening in New Orleans is like a punch in the gut.

What Jon Chait said about Iraq last week is perhaps even truer about New Orleans. The hallmarks of the Bush/Rove governing philosophy partisan discipline, industry giveaways, and relentless lying work pretty well as long as you can disguise the results of your policies. When you can't, it suddenly becomes obvious even to your supporters that the emperor has no clothes. It's taken two years for a lot of people to realize that about Iraq. It's taken less than a week to realize it about New Orleans.

UPDATE: Good God. Laura Rozen passes along the following report from a Dutch reader:

There was a striking dicrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.

ZDF News reported that the president's visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of 'news people' had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.

The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF.

This goes beyond stage management. This is criminal.

UPDATE 2: Over at Respectful of Otters, Rivka posts a more definitive translation of the ZDF report. It turns out the ZDF reporter was talking about the staging of cleanup and corpse removal in Biloxi, not food distribution points in New Orleans.

Kevin Drum 9:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

A WAY TO HELP... Looking for a smart way to help the Katrina rescue and recovery efforts? In addition to clicking the ads on right side of this page, you might wander over to Beliefnet, which will donate $1,000 for every 100 people who give.

Paul Glastris 7:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLEG....For a piece I'm writing on identity theft, I'd like to talk to someone who's been a victim of identity theft and has had to go through the whole process of rebuilding their credit, dealing with credit reporting firms, reestablishing their finances, and so forth.

If this has happened to you and you'd be willing to talk with me this weekend about the experience, please send me an email at calpundit@cox.net. Thanks.

Kevin Drum 5:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CRONYISM....I've known for several days that FEMA head Michael Brown had no previous disaster management experience when he was brought on board by the Bush administration in 2001 (originally as deputy director, then as director). But apparently it's actually worse than that. Laura Rozen summarizes:

As several readers have alerted me, not only was FEMA chief Michael D. Brown a former attorney for the Lyons, Colorado based International Arabian Horse Association, but he was actually *fired from* the International Arabian Horse Association. A Kos poster writes that his colleagues says he was fired for being an "unmitigated, total...disaster". The NYT profiles him here. Even I am staggered Brown was the lawyer for the horse association not back in the 1980s or 1990s, but until 2001 when he was brought into FEMA as deputy director by Joe Allbaugh. Incredible.

Yes. Incredible. But not hard to believe.

UPDATE: The Boston Herald confirms the story:

Before joining the Bush administration in 2001, Brown spent 11 years as the commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association..."This was his full-time job...for 11 years," [a spokeswoman] added.

Brown was forced out of the position after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures. "He was asked to resign," Bill Pennington, president of the IAHA at the time, confirmed last night.

Soon after, Brown was invited to join the administration by his old Oklahoma college roommate Joseph Allbaugh, the previous head of FEMA until he quit in 2003 to work for the president's re-election campaign.

Another case of "failing upward," apparently.

UPDATE 2: According to Allbaugh, Brown was a college friend of his, not his roommate.

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"THOSE DUDES GOT THE MESSAGE"....I'm not sure if this is a story of desolation or a story of redemption, but it's a remarkable story in any case. Here's what happened to Cory Williams when he tried to escape from the rising waters on Tuesday:

He made it several miles west, toward downtown and higher ground, then watched police stop at gunpoint a Ryder van that had been hot-wired by thieves. The officers told the men inside that they had to stop looting and must try to get people out of the neighborhoods, that people were dying.

"Believe it or not, those dudes got the message," Williams said.

The thieves began ferrying people out of the devastated neighborhoods to the east. The police had deputized looters.

"They had to," Williams said. "There was no other way to get people out."

The thieves dropped him off at the convention center, where he stayed until the troops arrived.

Sounds more like redemption to me.

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TARGETS AND TIMELINES....Andrew Sullivan on what New Orleans means for Iraq:

The death toll because of the administration's incompetence is a human tragedy. At a deeper level, as a believer that we have to win in Iraq, I worry that the public's trust in anything this administration says about reality may soon disappear altogether. The will we need to persevere in Iraq depends to some extent on trust in the administration. The trust, already battered, may now collapse. This calamity happened in a region where support for the president was relatively strong. It benefits none of us least of all the beleaguered Iraqis that this has happened and is still happening. But we know now at least how the citizens of Iraq must feel besieged, bereft of sufficient security, and reassured by smug Bush administration pabulum. They're on their own, just as surely as the remaining citizens of New Orleans were left to fend for themselves. But, hey, stuff happens, doesn't it?

Can there really be any doubt left that we need very public targets and timelines for our operation in Iraq? This administration is obviously incapable of working without oversight, and that means specific goals, specific timetables, and specific accountability for meeting them. Without that, we'll be in Iraq forever, slipping further behind with every month that passes.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA RELIEF....All griping aside for the moment, it's good to see that we finally seem to be making some progress today in New Orleans. The city may be uninhabitable for many months, and there are lots of people still waiting for buses, but at least food and water are making it in and evacuees are making it out. We seem to have begun turning a corner.

Much, much more money is still needed though. The liberal blogosphere fundraiser has now raised over $125,000 and is going strong. Click here to contribute.

UPDATE: Did I speak too soon? It does seem as though things are slowly improving, but it's pretty obvious that there's still plenty of misery left.

Kevin Drum 8:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OPPORTUNITY COST....Alex Tabarrok reports that the vast majority of professional economists are unable to correctly answer a question that appears on page 4 of a very popular beginning economics text. I wonder how many other professions would produce similar results?

UPDATE: A reader emails:

I personally know of many teaching profs in photography who do not know the difference between an underexposed and overexposed piece of film. Listening to fragments of their lectures is mind boggling.

For those of you who don't know anything about photography, this is about the equivalent of not knowing the difference between the gas pedal and the brake. Astonishing.

Kevin Drum 5:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IDEOLOGY AND REAL LIFE....One of the things that Hurricane Katrina has done is shine a very bright light on the different worldviews of liberals and conservatives.

Conservatives fundamentally believe in a limited role for the federal government. They believe in downsizing, privatizing, and placing greater reliance on state and local government to provide essential services. It's easy too easy to blame George Bush in hindsight for specific things like cutting the Corps of Engineers budget for the New Orleans district, but the reason this criticism is legitimate is because this wasn't merely a specific incident. As even some conservatives tacitly admit, it was a direct result of George Bush's governing ideology.

FEMA was downsized and partially privatized because modern Republican leaders think that's the right thing to do with federal agencies. Budgets were limited for levee construction and first responder training because Republicans have other priorities. The federal government was slow to respond to Katrina because conservatives believe states should take the lead in looking out for their own needs. George Bush talks endlessly to the cameras about the private sector helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast because that's the kind thing conservatives believe in.

Liberals, by contrast, believe in a robust role for the federal government. We believe in sharing risk nationwide for local disasters. We believe that only the federal government is big enough to coordinate relief on the scale needed by an event like Katrina, and that strong, well managed agencies like FEMA should take the lead role in making this happen.

Both of these governing philosophies are defensible, but too often they seem like nothing more than opposing sides in an intellectual game. Katrina demonstrates otherwise. It's what happens when a drowning city runs smack into a conservative movement that believes in drowning the federal government in a bathtub.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan says I'm wrong about conservative ideology:

Real conservatives believe that the state should do a few things that no one else can do defense, decent public education, police, law and order among the most obvious and leave the rest to individuals. Funding FEMA and having a superb civil defense are very much part of conservatism's real core.

I'm not so sure that disaster relief is truly part of "conservatism's real core," but really, this is neither here nor there. Rarefied arguments about "real" conservatism aside, the brand of conservatism actually on offer today clearly doesn't value things like disaster relief and doesn't care much about competent management of anything else either. On that much, at least, Andrew and I appear to agree.

Kevin Drum 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH IN BILOXI....As Jeffrey Dubner points out, George Bush's use of Hurricane Katrina as material for a comedy sketch is wildly inappropriate.

And it was no fluke. I just finished watching Bush as he was touring Biloxi, and never has his perpetual smirking been more out of place. There were points where he literally looked like he was stifling a case of the giggles.

Honestly, I can hardly stand to watch.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"NOT ENOUGH TROOPS"....I think Matt Yglesias is right to take Jon Chait to task for suggesting that liberal hawks were right about the war in Iraq, and it was only George Bush's mismanagement that turned the whole thing sour. Here's Chait:

Liberal complaints about mismanagement of the war have centered on the Bush administration's refusal to send as many troops into Iraq as the Army, and nearly any expert, thought would be necessary to carry out an orderly occupation.

....Many Iraq doves have dismissed this alternative as wishful thinking, a way for liberal hawks to transfer the blame completely onto the Bush administration and spare themselves. Yet the most prominent advocate of this view, Larry Diamond, is not only the most prominent expert on the subject (as a specialist on democracy-building who consulted with the Coalition Provisional Authority), he opposed the war in the first place. Obviously, we can't know for sure how a competently executed occupation would have fared. Yet the certainty of the doves has little to recommend it. History is filled with examples of occupations East Timor, postwar Germany, and Japan that had sufficient troops and did not lead to the sort of chaos endemic in Iraq.

Earlier this year I took a look at how many total combat troops were available to us, and the number turned out to be about 500,000. However, even that number is high, since we couldn't literally strip every combat brigade from every base in the world:

Realistically, then, the maximum number of troops available for use in Iraq is probably pretty close to the number we have now: 300,000 rotated annually, for a presence of about 150,000 at any given time.

The only way to appreciably increase this is to raise the Army's end strength by several divisions....But as [pro-war hawks] acknowledge, doing this would take a couple of years and as they don't acknowledge, it would have made the war politically impossible. The invasion of Iraq almost certainly would never have happened if Rumsfeld had told Congress in 2002 that he wanted them to approve three or four (or more) new divisions in preparation for a war in 2004 or 2005.

The "not enough troops" excuse just doesn't wash. We didn't have more troops. If your position is that you supported the war, but only if we had sent in the 300,000 or so troops that we needed to do the job right, you're basically saying you didn't support the war.

Kevin Drum 2:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EXCUSES....Listening to federal and state officials continue to make feeble excuses for their miserable performance in New Orleans is just infuriating. This is from the New York Times:

On Thursday, disaster experts and frustrated officials said a crucial shortcoming may have been the failure to predict that the levees keeping Lake Pontchartrain out of the city would be breached, not just overflow.

....Local, state and federal officials, for example, have cooperated on disaster planning. In 2000, they studied the impact of a fictional "Hurricane Zebra"; last year they drilled with "Hurricane Pam."

Neither exercise expected the levees to fail. In an interview Thursday on "Good Morning America," President Bush said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." He added, "Now we're having to deal with it, and will."

Does this matter? Even if they didn't predict the physical collapse of the levees, experts did predict the Lake Pontchartrain would overrun the levees and flood the city. In fact, what actually happened was less severe than what was being forecast as early as Thursday and Friday of last week.

In any case, the basic requirements for responding to the aftermath of this disaster were pretty much the same regardless of whether levees were breached:

  • Food, water, and medicine for those trapped in the city.

  • A plan to immediately evacuate those left behind as soon as the hurricane passed.

  • Temporary shelter outside the city for evacuated refugees.

  • A strong National Guard presence to maintain order during the evacuation.

It took days for this to start happening despite plenty of warning from the weather service and disaster experts and despite the fact that these are the well-understood requirements for almost any large scale disaster. At least, this was all well understood before FEMA got privatized, downsized, and staffed with political hacks. Now all they're left with is pathetic excuses.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GAY MARRIAGE IN CALIFORNIA....The state Senate voted Thursday to allow same sex marriage in California. Good for them. But if it passes the Assembly, Arnold has proposed a novel excuse for vetoing it:

Signaling a likely veto if it does pass, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman said he preferred to let judges sort out the legality of gay marriage; such a case is moving toward the state Supreme Court.

That's something you don't hear every day: the legislature should avoid legislating and instead let the judiciary legislate for them. Politics doesn't get much more gutless than that.

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

LEFT BEHIND....Don't miss Joan Walsh on Salon today, putting into words the frustration so many of us have struggled to articulate.

These are desperately poor people who've been deliberately left behind, in so many senses of the word left behind by society, shut up in housing projects and hideous poverty, and now truly left behind by local and federal officials who failed to come up with an evacuation plan for people too poor and isolated to leave on their own....

....Why didn't we send a caravan of buses into the city's poorest neighborhoods on Saturday or Sunday, when the dimensions of the disaster were already predictable?....Sure, Houston's got electricity and running water, but tens of thousands of scared, angry people packed into an abandoned sports stadium we couldn't come up with a better symbol of how little we care about the poor, how little we've thought about what to do with them, for them, if we tried.

We've heard the warning "this isn't about politics" over and over in the last few days. The hell it isn't. And I don't mean kicking Bush while he's down, just for the fun of it, although there are surely liberals eager to do that. For the rest of us, however, we're seeing the awful real world consequences of conservatism play out on our television screens. This is why we're liberals. We don't yell about poverty and racial disparities for kicks. An evacuation plan that consists of telling people to get out on their own is not an evacuation plan.

A Washington Post reporter shares this account of one family's ordeal leaving New Orleans this week that made me initially frustrated and then just profoundly sad. The father describes standing in his living room with his wife and five children as the floodwaters rose, trying to decide what to do. They have a car, but he says "it's a five-seater" and some of the family members would have had to sit on laps. Seems like a ridiculous reason to stay, no? But then he explains that they heard the highway police would not hesitate to arrest drivers who broke the law. So he stayed at home, choosing to take his chances with nature instead of taking his chances as a black man in the Southern criminal justice system.

UPDATE: E.J. Dionne also makes the liberal case for good government.

Amy Sullivan 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EVACUATING THE POOR....Why did so many people who lacked the means to evacuate New Orleans get left behind?

Brian Wolshon, an engineering professor at Louisiana State University who served as a consultant on the state's evacuation plan, said little attention was paid to moving out New Orleans's "low-mobility" population the elderly, the infirm and the poor without cars or other means of fleeing the city, about 100,000 people.

At disaster planning meetings, he said, "the answer was often silence."

It's not that no one had thought of this problem. They just didn't consider it important enough to spend any time on.

UPDATE: More from Jim Henley.

Kevin Drum 4:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HURRICANE RELIEF....Bumped and updated.

There's an ad over on the right that will be running for the next couple of weeks. It's called "Liberal Blogs for Hurricane Relief," and its goal is to raise $1 million from blog readers for the American Red Cross's Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

To make a donation, click the picture or click here. Donations are via PayPal, and you can use either a PayPal account or a credit card.

However you do it, though, please donate what you can. The scope of this disaster is almost beyond belief, and every little bit helps. Be generous.

UPDATE: We've raised about $80,000 so far on the first day. That's not bad, but we can do a lot better. If you haven't donated yet, please do it soon. Thanks.

Kevin Drum 12:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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September 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

UNDERWATER....Here's an updated version of this post with a better photo that shows the full extent of the flooding.

POSTSCRIPT: More satellite photos here and here. The second link is especially useful. It contains a full set of annotated photos showing the flooding and the levee breaks.

Kevin Drum 10:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CLUELESS....Could the people in charge of managing the catastrophe in New Orleans possibly be more clueless?

  • George W. Bush, President of the United States, six days after repeated warnings from experts about the scope of damage expected from Hurricane Katrina: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

  • Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, following widespread eyewitness reports of refugees living like animals at the Convention Center: "I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the Convention Center who don't have food and water."

  • Mike Brown, Director of FEMA, referring to people who were stuck in New Orleans largely because they were too poor to afford the means to leave: "...those who are stranded, who chose not to evacuate, who chose not to leave the city..."

  • Patrick Rhode, deputy director of FEMA, commenting on his agency's performance after four days of steadily increasing urban warfare, deeply flawed coordination, and continuing inability to evacuate refugees: "Probably one of the most efficient and effective responses in the country's history."

  • Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives, providing needed reassurance to the newly homeless: "It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level....It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."

This is beyond belief. What's with these people?

Kevin Drum 9:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SUPERDOME....Can someone tell me how many buses it would take to evacuate the entire Superdome? Maybe 500? A thousand?

That's nothing. Why are there still people there? What the hell is going on?

UPDATE: Via Laura Rozen, an exchange on NPR:

John Burnett: There are 2,000 people living outside the convention center. There is no food. There is absolutely no water. There is no medical treatment. There are no police. There are two dead bodies on the ground and in a wheel chair around the convention center, both elderly people. We understand two more died earlier.

We understand that a 10 year old girl was raped in the convention center in the last two nights. People are absolutely desperate there.

I have never seen anything like this.

....Host: Is there someone in charge?

John Burnett: No. There is no one. There is no one in charge of this effort. They seem to be throwing it back between national guard, city police and state police. The plan seems to be changing by the hour. These people were told to go to the Superdome, then to the convention center, then they were told buses would pick them up, but nothing is happening...

Kevin Drum 4:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CHRONOLOGY....Here's a timeline that outlines the fate of both FEMA and flood control projects in New Orleans under the Bush administration. Read it and weep:

  • January 2001: Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh, a crony from Texas, as head of FEMA. Allbaugh has no previous experience in disaster management.

  • April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces the Bush administration's goal of privatizing much of FEMA's work. In May, Allbaugh confirms that FEMA will be downsized: "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program...." he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

  • 2001: FEMA designates a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country."

  • December 2002: After less than two years at FEMA, Allbaugh announces he is leaving to start up a consulting firm that advises companies seeking to do business in Iraq. He is succeeded by his deputy and former college friend, Michael Brown, who has no previous experience in disaster management and was fired from his previous job for mismanagement.

  • March 2003: FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting acts of terrorism.

  • 2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.

  • Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. Says Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: "You would think we would get maximum consideration....This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it."

  • June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri comments: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay."

  • June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes.

  • August 2005: While New Orleans is undergoing a slow motion catastrophe, Bush mugs for the cameras, cuts a cake for John McCain, plays the guitar for Mark Wills, delivers an address about V-J day, and continues with his vacation. When he finally gets around to acknowledging the scope of the unfolding disaster, he delivers only a photo op on Air Force One and a flat, defensive, laundry list speech in the Rose Garden.

So: A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA. Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration's conservative agenda to reduce the role of government. After DHS was created, FEMA's preparation and planning functions were taken away.

Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It's the Bush administration in a nutshell.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND KATRINA....Echidne of the Snakes reports that on Good Morning America today, George Bush said:

"I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

I swear, this is the Bush administration in a microcosm. Everyone was anticipating a breach of the levees before Katrina hit. In fact, Katrina changed course the night before it made landfall and then weakened a bit right at the moment it hit New Orleans. If it had continued along its previous path and hit about 30 miles west as a full Category 5, the levees would have been instantly overrun and possibly breached within hours instead of days.

Does Bush genuinely not know this? Or is he just so comfortable lying about stuff like this that he doesn't give it a second thought? And which is worse?

Kevin Drum 11:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEVASTATION....New Orleans will be uninhabitable for at least a month maybe longer:

[Mayor Ray] Nagin said [New Orleans] would have to be abandoned while the levees are repaired and the city is drained. He called for a "total evacuation," adding: "We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months."

Total recovery appeared to be far more remote. Officials of the Army Corps of Engineers said it would be weeks or months before the city could be pumped dry, and that it would take years to rebuild its thousands of homes and businesses, its streets, highways and other infrastructure.

The Red Cross Online Donation Page is here. You can also donate by phone:

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Kevin Drum 1:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FEMA THEN AND NOW....So what does James Lee Witt, former director of FEMA in the 90s, think of his agency's response to Hurricane Katrina?

In the 1990s, in planning for a New Orleans nightmare scenario, the federal government figured it would pre-deploy nearby ships with pumps to remove water from the below-sea-level city and have hospital ships nearby, said James Lee Witt, who was FEMA director under President Clinton.

Federal officials said a hospital ship would leave from Baltimore on Friday.

"These things need to be planned and prepared for; it just doesn't look like it was," said Witt, a former Arkansas disaster chief who won bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill during his tenure.

Read the rest of the story for a blow-by-blow indictment of the weak federal response to Katrina. FEMA just isn't what it used to be.

UPDATE: Here's a story on Bush's mismanagement of FEMA that ran in the Independent Weekly last September:

Among emergency specialists, "mitigation" the measures taken in advance to minimize the damage caused by natural disasters is a crucial part of the strategy to save lives and cut recovery costs.
But since 2001, key federal disaster mitigation programs, developed over many years, have been slashed and tossed aside. FEMA's Project Impact, a model mitigation program created by the Clinton administration, has been canceled outright.

....[In 2001], President Bush appointed a close aide, Joe Allbaugh, to be the agency's new director....The White House quickly launched a government-wide effort to privatize public services, including key elements of disaster management. Bush's first budget director, Mitch Daniels, spelled out the philosophy in remarks at an April 2001 conference: "The general idea that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided seems self-evident to me," he said.

In a May 15, 2001, appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Allbaugh signaled that the new, stripped-down approach would be applied at FEMA as well. "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management," he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

Italics mine. There's much, much more in this deeply reported story. Read the whole thing to get a sickening sense of the disastrous effect that the Bush administration's glorification of conservative ideology over managerial competence has had on FEMA's workforce, its morale, and its ability to get things done.

Kevin Drum 1:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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