Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 28, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CONTRACEPTION FROM ALABAMA TO WYOMING....How does your state rank in providing easy access to contraception and family planning services? Not good enough, says the Guttmacher Institute:

Guttmacher's president and CEO, Sharon Camp, warned that obstacles to contraception at the state level could derail efforts, dating from the Clinton administration, to cut the rate of unintended pregnancies by 40 percent by 2010.

...."We need to be making contraception easy for women, but in many states we're actually making it harder," said Camp. "When effective contraceptive use rises, abortion rates go down."

The full report is here. State rankings are below the fold. The top five include California and New York (no surprise) and Alabama, South Carolina, and Alaska (surprise!). Overall, the rankings clearly don't follow the red/blue divide you'd expect. Peculiar.

Kevin Drum 10:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Paul Glastris

UNKINDEST CUT....I guess it's just a matter of priorities. In his new budget, the president takes an ax to a tiny Americorps program called the National Civilian Community Corps. This small enterprise employs about a thousand 18-to-24 years olds in full time service, much of it involving disaster relief and homeland security. The program gets rave reviews from participants and recipients alike. After 9/11, Sen. John McCain singled it out as the kind of effort we should be expanding. Yet Bush's new budget would cut its funding from $27 million to $5 million an 80 percent reduction! The reason given by the White House's Office of Management and Budget is that the program is "extremely expensive." Via Daily Kos, I see that some of the program's alumni have set up a web site to fight the cut. Good for them.

If the president really wants to cut waste in the federal government, he should start with the eight nuclear weapons labs and factories that comprise the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). These Cold War-era relics employ 36,000 people in seven states, at a cost of $9 billion a year. Yet they haven't produced a single nuclear weapon their primary mission in a decade and a half, for the simple reason that we don't need any more nuclear weapons. Moreover, these facilities are sitting ducks for terrorists. Keeping all of them open makes zero sense, budgetarily or militarily. As Zachary Roth reports in the latest issue of The Washington Monthly:

Last summer, a congressionally-mandated report produced by a blue-ribbon task force of experts found that reducing the number of sites we operate would save money, improve security, and make the complex better able to produce the next generation of nuclear weapons the United States may someday need. It was the kind of report you might think elected officials would have seized on. After all, at the time, the Bush White House and GOP congressional leaders were in tense negotiations over how to reduce the president's massive budget deficit. Desperate congressional leaders were targeting student loans, Medicaidanything they could think of to save precious dollars and restore their party's reputation as the standard-bearer of small government. The news, then, that by shuttering dilapidated and largely redundant government facilities, they could save billions, while making Americans safer against a terrorist attack, ought to have been heralded. Indeed, at a similar moment of fiscal panic during the 1990s, Congress and the Clinton White House agreed to help the Defense Department adapt to the post-Cold War world by creating an independent commission to recommend the closing of obsolete military bases. But this time, Congress and the administration reacted to the DOE weapons complex report with studied indifference, and in some cases, outright hostility.

Like I said, it's a matter of priorities.

Paul Glastris 3:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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By: Kevin Drum

POTEMKIN CHINA?....Minxin Pei writes in Foreign Policy that China is headed for decay, not world domination. Tyler Cowen reduces his argument to a long soundbite:

If you are not convinced, raise your right hand and repeat after me: "China in the 20th century had two major revolutions, a civil war, a World War, The Great Leap Forward [sic], mass starvation, the Cultural Revolution, arguably the most tyrannical dictator ever and he didn't even brush his teeth, and now they will go from rags to riches without even a business cycle burp." I don't think you can do it with a straight face.

I don't have a strong opinion about this since I've read very little Chinese history, but if there's a common theme to the stuff I have read it's China's historic and recurring pattern of strong central government followed by dissolution and chaos followed by another round of strong central government, of course. Twenty-first century technology probably makes a difference in this pattern, but centripetal forces are still strong in China and it's not clear that the octogenerians in Beijing can hold it together forever. If their control ever starts to slip, some kind of USSR-style breakup seems at least reasonably likely to me and probably to them too. Thus the iron fisted control and rampant corruption that Pei focuses on.

It's funny that we don't read more about this. Op-ed pages carry pieces about China periodically, but most of them focus on economic issues: China's skyrocketing GDP, the supposed post-Mao unleashing of market forces, competition with the West for oil, the odd bit of outsourcing paranoia, fears about the growing pile of U.S. government bonds in the hands of the Chinese central bank, etc. Conversely, very few focus in any serious way on internal Chinese politics beyond things like Falun Gong and the occasional color piece on censorship in internet cafes. If we're going to spend a trillion dollars or so over the next decade on military equipment whose only conceivable purpose is to fight a war with China, it seems like a topic that should be of more than passing interest.

Kevin Drum 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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By: Kevin Drum

BEATING CENSORWARE....I noticed this morning that Glenn Reynolds has reposted Boing Boing's "Guide to Defeating Censorware," a handy list of ways to access sites censored by either your employer or your autocratic government. Since Boing Boing's guide is itself often censored (natch), reposting it in various places on the web seems like a public service. The original Boing Boing guide is here. It's reposted below the fold.

BOING BOING'S GUIDE TO DEFEATING CENSORWARE (see story here)

If your employer or corrupt, undemocratic, dictator-based government uses a filtering service such as Secure Computing's SmartFilter to block access to BoingBoing.net, you can try the following workarounds:

  • Google can act as a lightweight, proxy-like tool for accessing forbidden sites -- but don't rely on this method for anonymity. Link.

  • The popular RSS reader Bloglines can offer lightweight help in some cases, too. Boing Boing reader Tom Jeziorny says, "I work for a BIG financial services company that apparently uses (not-so-) SmartFilter because BoingBoing has recently become a forbidden site. I use Bloglines as my RSS reader so that I can access the blogs I read from work and home. It turns out that Bloglines is acting as sort of a proxy, since it connects to your RSS feed and not my computer, I'm still able to read BoingBoing at work. Since you publish the full text of your entries in your feeds I'm not missing much, though any photos linked directly from your site are edited out."

  • A group called Peacefire created proxy software called Circumventor to bypass censorware. Install this software on your home computer and allow others to use your proxy to access the web, or use your proxy from work or school to access any web site. (Thanks, Sean!)

  • Bennett Haselton of Peacefire, who developed Circumventor, says:

    For 90% of users in the USA affected by SmartFilter, there is no reason to use anything but Circumventor. The reasons are:

    1) It's simple to set up. Just run three simple point-and-click installers. We even have a wizard that comes up automatically to help you set up port forwarding on your router if you've never done it before.

    2) You are not required to install anything on the "censored" computer, you just bring a URL in with you to work.

    3) It works even if the censored network blocks direct connections to IP addresses outside the network (which would break some of the other solutions recommended in this guide).

    If you're in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or some other country censored by SmartFilter, then your best choices are (a) TOR, or (b) use a Circumventor if you can get someone in a "free country" to set one up for you. (The reason Circumventor works for 90% of workplace-filtered users in the U.S. is that they can almost always set it up on their home computer and take the URL in with them. But not everybody in a censored *country* has someone outside who can help them.)

    Circumventor is the *only* method (as far as I know) that will work reliably on computers where people are blocked from installing their own software (or even changing proxy settings) -- because after you install it on your home computer, all it gives you is a URL, and you can take that URL in with you to work and use it whenever you want. Many people in workplaces and libraries are blocked from installing software on their computers. Or even if they could, it would be a definite 'smoking gun' if anyone noticed that the software had been installed; whereas our software leaves fewer traces. (There is a 'smoking gun' in the form of a URL in the URL history, but that's much less likely to be noticed than a TOR icon on your desktop!)

  • Rich says, "This cgi-bin script is the guts inside Peacefire's Circumventor a Perl CGI script that proxys for you. While Circumventor is a full script to get it working under Win2k/XP, the cgiproxy script alone lets you get it going on Linux and (presumeably) Mac OSX. And the best part the setup is dirt simple if you're already running a web server, pretty much just drop it in your cgi-bin directory.

  • Access the TOR network. The more people who run Tor servers, the faster and more anonymous the network becomes.

  • Using an SSH tunnel, VPN, or anonymous overlay to an unfiltered network is widely considered to be the best way to protect yourself while accessing "prohibited" content. (Thanks, chris)

  • Chris says, "There is a new option in OpenSSH that allows for ethernet level tunneling using the kernel's TUN interface. This is probably the most powerful solution if you have access to a friendly system to use as the end point of the tunnel. Manual for ssh, see -w option: Link. For ssh_config, see Tunnel option: Link. And one more way to use SSH as a tunnel is to with SOCKS: Link. osx example script: Link.

  • Breaking out of a Proxy Jail. Link (Thanks, Mutz!)

  • Try Daveproxy, and other services listed on the proxy list at samair.ru/proxy together with AntiFirewall (a small app that tests proxies). (Thanks, Joao Barata!)

  • Try Java Anonymous Proxy. JAP uses the TOR network, and installation is pretty easy for non-nerds. (Thanks, Jonas)

  • The Bitty browser, while not initially designed as an anonymizing tool, has helped some of our readers work around corporate internet filters. (Thanks, Scott Matthews!)

  • Some of our readers have found the Coral Content Distribution Network (CCDN) helpful for evading internet blocks. Just add ".nyud.net:8090" at the end of boingboing.net for example, instead of typing http://www.boingboing.net to your browser's address line, instead type http://www.boingboing.net.nyud.net:8090. (Thanks, Tian and Michael!)

  • Check out the regularly updated list of public proxy servers at publicproxyservers.com.

  • For BoingBoing readers in the UAE or Qatar, or other countries where BoingBoing is blocked, one anonymous reader tells us: "There is an internet via satellite called OPENSKY sold through www.broadsat.com which goes around these problems. Using VPN with normal dialup, the signal gets sent back from Europe, so, uncensored. Works really well and is cheap!"

  • Andy Armstrong says, "I've also set up a proxy for boingboing at boingboing.hexten.net."

  • Ben says, "You can also set your home computer up for remote access. Windows XP has the components built in. If you run XP at home it will take you about 30 min to set up. You can find instructions here. Once you set up remote access you can use Zone Edit freeware to set up a static IP, even if you are on a cable modem. If you really want to go all out register a website for $5 and have that point to the Zone Edit IP address. I can hit my home computer from anywhere with web access, and have its full functionality, including censor-free web browsing."

  • Marcus Aurelius says, "This is how I dodged Etisalat's (The UAE ISP and telco) proxy-server blacklist. It is only really useful for text-rich sites since it involves using Lynx a text browser."

  • Abdul Aziz says, "It's a pain to know that countries and companies alike are blocking and censoring sites like Boing Boing. I face this at my office everyday. I've mentioned two ways on my site by which you can bypass these proxies and filters safely and securely without breaking any rules or arousing the network admin's suspicions." Link

Or...

  • If possible, ask your system administrator to whitelist BoingBoing.net. Sometimes network admins leave all the defaults on when they install enterprise filtering software. If they're using SmartFilter, for example, the admin can selectively allow the BoingBoing.net domain, while keeping the rest of the entries for the "blocked" category in which BoingBoing is listed. Bribing your sysadmin with cartons of Skittles and Red Bull may expedite this option. (Thanks, mcsey!)

If you know of any good ways to defeat censorware, please send us your suggestion.

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TROOPS SPEAK....From Zogby:

An overwhelming majority of 72% of American troops serving in Iraq think the U.S. should exit the country within the next year, and nearly one in four say the troops should leave immediately, a new Le Moyne College/Zogby International survey shows.

....29% of the respondents, serving in various branches of the armed forces, said the U.S. should leave Iraq immediately, while another 22% said they should leave in the next six months. Another 21% said troops should be out between six and 12 months, while 23% said they should stay as long as they are needed.

....Three quarters of the troops had served multiple tours and had a longer exposure to the conflict: 26% were on their first tour of duty, 45% were on their second tour, and 29% were in Iraq for a third time or more.

Soldiers are famous for being disgruntled, of course, but I doubt that 72% of military respondents in 1943 would have favored pulling out of World War II within 12 months. Zogby's summary is a little unclear on this point, but it looks like the big difference is that troops in Iraq are pretty confused about why they're there and whether they're doing any good. After all, 68% think the mission was simply to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and with that done apparently a lot of them aren't quite sure what the point of staying is.

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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By: Kevin Drum

HONORIFICS....Eszter Hargittai (BA Smith, MA/PhD Princeton) thinks that female academics are less likely to be addressed as "Doctor" or "Professor" than their male colleagues:

Another related anecdote underscores the importance of gender in all this. I was presenting at a conference (in the U.S.) a few months ago. It was not necessarily clear who on the panel was a student vs a faculty member, we all looked fairly young. There were two women on the panel and a man. In the end, it turned out that I was the only faculty member, the other woman was a Ph.D. student, the man a Masters student.

The discussant (seemingly American) stood up to give his comments. He started mine with Miss Eszter. I dont remember how he addressed the other woman. I do, however, remember that he addressed the man the Masters student as Professor X. While I realize that my last name may be a challenge to pronounce, everyone on the panel had hard-to-pronounce foreign names so that doesnt quite explain the distinction in how we were addressed.

On a related note, the sport I watch most often is tennis, probably the most gender integrated major sport in the world. Announcers, however, very clearly refer to male players by their last name far more often than they do female players. It's Federer, Sampras, and Agassi, but Lindsey, Monica, and Steffi. I've never counted up the references or anything, but the difference is so noticeable that I'd be shocked if I were mistaken about this.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (134)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEART OF DARKNESS....The genocide in Darfur has spilled over into Chad:

"You may have thought the terrible situation in Darfur couldn't get worse, but it has," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement.

....The United Nations Security Council has agreed to send troops to protect civilians, but they will take months to arrive. In the meantime, President Bush has said, NATO should help shore up a failing African Union peacekeeping mission there, but a surge of violence has chased tens of thousands of people from their homes in recent weeks.

I don't think that any force smaller than about 40,000 troops would be able to contain the violence in Darfur. Where are 40,000 troops going to come from?

Kevin Drum 1:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (159)

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND DUBAI....Look, I happen to think that the Dubai port deal is probably OK. But for chrissake, Richard, it's not exactly insane to be a little more cautious in turning over port operations to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates than to one owned by, say, the German government. Get a grip.

As for why George Bush has defended the deal, one hardly has to resort to paeans to his open-minded humanity to figure this out. I don't think Bush is a bigot, but the reason he stuck to his guns on the port deal is because his first instinct is always to stick to his guns. When Bush is attacked, he attacks back, whether he knows anything about the issue at hand or not. Anyone who hasn't figured that out after five years of Bush watching really does need to go back to school, and not just for a refresher in elementary arithmetic.

Kevin Drum 1:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (133)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NEW REPUBLIC....Via Atrios, I see that Franklin Foer will be taking over as editor of the New Republic next week. I wish him luck. He'll need it.

Like a lot of people, I find TNR to be a maddening magazine. At the same time, I also find it indispensable. Sure, reading Martin Peretz is like listening to fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard, but just take a look at their masthead. I'm not a fan of every single one of TNR's senior editors (a title that's essentially code for "staff writer," not someone who actually does any editing) but 80% of them are top notch. It's hard to think of any other political magazine that can match that collection of talent, and they consistently churn out a remarkable amount of top notch political journalism.

So what's their problem? They publish some genuinely weird dreck sometimes, but they're hardly unique in that. Do they need brighter writing for a new era of blog-raised readers? I doubt it. Their writing is better than most of their competitors. Do they need to cut down on what sometimes seems like knee jerk contrarianism? Maybe. One Michael Kinsley is enough. Do they need to finally figure out plainly and unambiguously that the Iraq war was a mistake?

Bingo. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem likely to happen, and as long as they decline to learn the obvious lesson from our current adventure in Mesopotamia they're just not going to find a very big liberal audience. And that's too bad, because an awful lot of good stuff is being held hostage between their covers by their stubborn insistence that the U.S. military can remake the world.

Kevin Drum 1:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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February 27, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

NO MORE CRISIS....Good news! The medical malpractice "crisis" is over. The fine folks at Americans for Insurance Reform have tabulated recent increases in malpractice premiums and found that after the big upsurge of a few years ago, rates aren't going up anymore:

Contrary to the medical and insurance lobbies message that medical malpractice lawsuits and claims were to blame for the increase in insurance rates the fact is that in 2001, commercial property insurance rates jumped across the board. In other words, rate hikes for doctors were only a small part of a much larger insurance problem that affected homeowners, motorists and all kinds of policyholders.

....These kinds of volcanic eruptions in insurance premiums have occurred three times in the last 30 years in the mid 1970s, again in the mid-1980s, and then again following the year 2001. The cause is always the same: a severe drop in investment income for insurers compounded by underpricing in prior years. Each time, insurers and the health care industry have tried to cover up their mismanaged underwriting by blaming lawyers and the legal system. To buy this position, one would have to accept the notion that juries engineered large jury verdicts in the mid-1970s, then stopped for a decade, then engineered large verdicts again in the mid-1980s, stopped for 17 years and then did it again beginning in 2001 only to stop once again. Of course, this is ludicrous and untrue.

They also found no correlation between rate increases and imposition of caps on damages. No surprise there.

Kevin Drum 8:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

DUBAI PORT UPDATE....The Dubai port deal continues to be murky. A couple of recent notes:

  • Via Mark Kleiman, the blog Transparent Grid notes that port operators do have responsibility for certain aspects of port security.

    I'm not sure how meaningful this is, but there's obviously some truth to it. The Coast Guard and U.S. Customs may have primary responsibility for security, but port operators have to cooperate with these agencies and implement security practices under their direction. I don't think there's much question that having somebody working on the inside of a port operator would hypothetically make it easier to circumvent normal security procedures.

  • Via Josh Marshall, it turns out that the Coast Guard had some initial qualms about the Dubai deal, though they now say that "other U.S. intelligence agencies were able to provide answers to the questions it raised." Maybe so, but it would be nice to know what those qualms were.

The bulk of the evidence still suggests to me that DP World would be a reasonable and prudent choice to operate terminals at U.S. ports partly because DPW seems to have a pretty good reputation and partly because it's not clear what actual damage they could do even if they were infiltrated by a full-blown al-Qaeda operative. It's easy for people like us to guess endlessly about hypothetical risks, but I haven't yet heard from anyone with real experience in port operations about any specific, concrete risks that would result from the DPW takeover. If there were any serious ways in which DPW might compromise security at the terminals they operate, you'd think we would have heard about it by now.

Still, congressional hearings are good. Hopefully we'll all learn more about this issue over the next few weeks.

Kevin Drum 8:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Paul Glastris

TALKING STRAIGHT ABOUT WAR... The New York Post reports today that Sen. Hillary Clinton, in an effort to "toughen up her message on national security and Iraq," has signed up former Clinton White House speechwriter Heather Hurlburt. This is good news for Hillary, and for the republic. Regular readers of The Washington Monthly will remember Hurlburt as the author of one of our all-time best pieces, War Torn. In it, she argues that because too many liberals particularly Democratic staffers and political operatives don't take the substance of national security issues seriously, Democratic politicians often come off sounding like phonies, like people with positions on rather than convictions about how best to defend the country. The Post piece, however, makes Hurlburt sound like some big hawk on Iraq. But as I recall from talking to her while editing her piece in the fall of 2002, she was far more dubious of, and hence wiser about, Bush's plan to invade Iraq than a lot of people, including me. You can read more of Hurlburt's smart musings over at Democracy Arsenal.

Paul Glastris 5:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (137)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPORT FROM BAGHDAD....Riverbend writes about the mood in her Baghdad neighborhood:

It does not feel like civil war because Sunnis and Shia have been showing solidarity these last few days in a big way. I dont mean the clerics or the religious zealots or the politicians but the average person. Our neighborhood is mixed and Sunnis and Shia alike have been outraged with the attacks on mosques and shrines. The telephones have been down, but weve agreed upon a very primitive communication arrangement. Should any house in the area come under siege, someone would fire in the air three times. If firing in the air isnt an option, then someone inside the house would have to try to communicate trouble from the rooftop.

....Im reading, and hearing, about the possibility of civil war. The possibility. Yet Im sitting here wondering if this is actually what civil war is like. Has it become a reality? Will we look back at this in one year, two years...ten...and say, It began in February 2006...? It is like a nightmare in that you dont realise its a nightmare while having it only later, after waking up with your heart throbbing, and your eyes searching the dark for a pinpoint of light, do you realise it was a nightmare...

In related news, the Iraqi ministry of defense has promised to "crack down" on freelance militias and Sunni political leaders have agreed to rejoin talks about forming a government. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (119)

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By: Kevin Drum

ID THEFT UPDATE....Michael Hiltzik's column today is ostensibly about his recent problems with AOL, but it's really broader than that. Turns out that someone recently opened a fraudulent AOL account with his credit card and it took him hours to finally emerge from AOL's call center hell and get a human being on the line:

When I instructed him to reverse the charges to my credit card, he offered to mail me an affidavit to fill out....Presently, my affidavit arrived. To say the least, it's a massive intrusion on my privacy. It requires me to mail AOL copies of my credit card bill, along with a personal utility or insurance bill as proof of residence. (Question: If I don't live at the address I gave them, how did I receive the form they mailed me?) It asks for the names of all authorized users of the credit card. And so on.

The whole affair is a great example of the ID theft problem that I wrote about last year. Too many companies simply don't care about fraud and ID theft because they don't have any incentive to care about it. After all, why should they bother wasting their own money tracking down ID thieves when they aren't the ones suffering the pain? Instead, the victim is the one who has to spend time, money, and emotional energy trying to sort things out.

But what if it cost AOL a thousand bucks or $10,000 whenever they opened a fraudulent account? No arguments, no excuses, and no safe harbors because they really, really think they've taken every reasonable precaution to prevent fraud. Instead, treat it the way banks treat money: if they lose it, they have to make good on it no matter how good their security is.

And you know what? That's why their security is so good. Hold AOL and other companies to the same standard and they'd discover a sudden eagerness to beef up their security too. Funny how that works.

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

BIG FISH IN LITTLE PONDS....This subject happened to come up in conversation the other day, and today Linda Williamson confirms that it's true:

During a talk at our son's preschool, visiting kindergarten teachers talked up the benefits of having children wait until age 6 to begin kindergarten, rather than enrolling them as soon as they become eligible at 5. "They'll be really ready, they'll have the advantage of being the oldest in the class, and when they get to high school, they'll be the first ones to drive." And in response to my queries about the rigorous academics we found in kindergarten, my son's teacher explained that the current kindergarten curriculum was, until five years ago, the first-grade curriculum.

So if we are being advised to wait until age 6 to begin school, and the first-grade curriculum is now taught in kindergarten, the kindergarten I once knew has effectively been eliminated. No wonder there is a drive for universal preschool. Preschool is the new kindergarten.

I wish I had an intelligent reaction to this, but basically it's just "Huh?" Apparently parents are increasingly buying into the notion that holding back their kids for a year is a good idea because it gives them a better chance of being tops in their class. It's a competitive advantage, you see. And teachers are encouraging this belief.

This strikes me as nuts. Please tell me there's something I'm just not getting about this.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (161)

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By: Amy Sullivan

HELP WANTED....Our founding editor, Charlie Peters, often bemoans the feeble grasp of history that plagues most everyone under the age of 50, and particularly the editors he has nurtured over the past few decades. When he sat down to write his latest book, Five Days in Philadelphia, he hoped to bring at least one crucial period in American history to the attention of the young, unmoored-from-history, masses. Alas, he is not sure he accomplished this task, so he sends us this missive:

When I began this book, my main motive was to restore Wendell Willkie to the place in history that he deserved by demonstrating his crucial role as the Republican leader gave a Democratic president the courage to make politically dangerous decisions in an election year, decisions that were vital to the survival of democracy. As I was writing the book, however, I realized there were differences between the country in 1940 and the way it is today that I wanted to explain so that young people would understand that we can do better, a lot better than were doing now.

But I have failed. Although the book was generously reviewed and I have received far more enthusiastic phone calls, letters and emails from readers than for any of my eight other books, Ive had to face the fact that except for a handful from younger Monthly alumni, these messages came from no one recognizably under 35.

So I ask for your help and advice in figuring out how to reach these young people, and urge you to write me with your advice care of the Monthly. The points I want to emphasize most are that we can have leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, we can be willing to sacrifice by drafting ourselves into military service and paying higher taxes. We can have a dominant Christianity that supports liberal programs, and we can have a country where too many people seem not to be trying to demonstrate that they are richer, smarter and have better taste than the next guys, but where instead theyre trying to find common ground with their fellow citizens. It can happen, because it did happen. We can not only do better, we can be better. Not that we wont still be recognizably human, with our share of failings. Even FDR had his weaknesses. But they and we were able to rise to behavior characterized by considerably more idealism and generosity than is evident today.

Amy Sullivan 10:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (125)

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By: Kevin Drum

EVENING ROUNDUP....A few links to get you through the night:

Kevin Drum 1:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (157)

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By: Kevin Drum

"UPDATING" FISA....Via TalkLeft, Marty Lederman has examined Arlen Specter's proposed legislation to make the NSA's domestic spying program legal, and he's not very happy. Under Specter's bill, he says, the government would no longer have any requirement to show that the subject of a wiretap is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power:

Instead, the bill would permit domestic electronic surveillance targeted at U.S. persons merely upon a showing of "probable cause" that the surveillance program as a whole not even the particular targeted surveillance will intercept communications of anyone who has "had communication" with a foreign power or agent of a foreign power....

Therefore, if I'm reading it correctly, if you've ever had any communication with a foreign government or organization, or its U.S. agents or employees that is to say, if there's "probable cause" that you live and breathe here in the U.S. this bill would permit the President to wiretap you [for 90 days], without any showing that any of your phone calls have anything to do with a foreign entity, let alone Al Qaeda.

In other words, if you've ever had any contact in the past with a foreign government, a foreign-based political organization, or one of their U.S. agents, you can be wiretapped. As Lederman says, that probably includes most of the population of the United States and it certainly includes nearly all reporters and practically everyone with relatives outside the country. And there's more:

The only check would be an odd constitutional check: The FISA court would be required to certify that the program as a whole (again, not any particular surveillance) is "consistent with" the Fourth Amendment....The FISA Court would be tasked not with determining whether any particular interception is constutitional, but somehow with making "wholesale" determinations that the program writ large is "consistent with" the Constitution. That seems untenable, at least on first glance.

And even this feeble oversight applies only to the content of electronic communications. Data mining of metadata (sender, recipient, date/time, etc.) would be completely unrestricted.

Maybe Lederman has misread the bill. Maybe it's not finished and Specter plans to tighten it up. Maybe. But if Lederman's analysis is even close to the truth, it's basically statutory authority for the NSA to wiretap anyone, at any time, for any reason. Do you feel safer yet?

Kevin Drum 12:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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February 26, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GLADWELL BLINKS....Six years ago Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell debated healthcare in the pages of the Washington Monthly. Gopnik was for universal healthcare and Gladwell was agin it.

But wait! Via Rufus X, I learn that Gladwell has blinked! He now says Gopnik was right:

Why have I changed my mind? Some of my reasons are in the piece on moral hazard I wrote for the New Yorker last summer. The bigger reason is simply that I woke up one day and realized what much smarter people than me (Adam Gopnik) realized a long time ago, which is that the idea of employer-based health care is just plain stupid and only our familiarity with it and sheer inertia prevent us from rising up in rebellion.

I always try to think of a suitable analogy and fail. The closest I can come is to imagine if we had employer-based subways in New York. You could ride the subway if you had a job. But if you lost your job, you would either have to walk or pay a prohibitively expensive subway surcharge. Of course, if you lost your job you would need the subway more than ever, because you couldn't afford taxis and you would need to travel around looking for work. Right? In any case, what logical connection is there between employment and transporation? If you can answer that question, you can solve the riddle of the U.S. health care system. And maybe I'll change my mind back.

Gladwell wrote this because, for some reason, his old debate with Gopnik has suddenly gotten renewed attention in the blogosphere (20 cites in the past week) and, he says, "I shudder when I read what I said back then."

By the way, did you know that Malcolm Gladwell now has a blog? Well he does.

Kevin Drum 9:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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CALIFORNIA APPROVES DIEBOLD E-VOTING....I try not go overboard writing about California issues on the blog, but the decision this week by California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson to approve the use of obviously flawed Diebold voting machines deserves wider attention. Although a panel of experts concluded that the Diebold flaws were "manageable by a reasonably careful combination of short-and long-term approaches," the language they used to describe these flaws was pretty uncompromising:

Anyone who has access to a memory card...can indeed modify the election results from that machine....Mr. Hursti's attack on the AV-OS is definitely real....However, there is another category of more serious vulnerabilities....could change vote totals, modify reports, change the names of candidates....no way to know that any of these attacks occurred....classic security flaws....serious flaw in the key management of the crypto code.

And there's more, as Michael Hiltzik summarized in his Thursday column:

The bugs pale next to another discovery by the panel. This is the presence of a cryptographic key written into the source code, or basic software, of every Diebold touch-screen machine in the country. The researchers called this blunder tantamount to "a bank using the same PIN code for every ATM card they issued; if this PIN code ever became known, the exposure could be tremendous."

Here's the punch line: The Diebold key became known in 2003, when it was published by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Rice universities. It can be found today via a Google search.

Yep. Despite the fact that the panel of experts concluded that Diebold could fix all the bugs in their machines in "only a few hours," the problem with the hardcoded key has been known since 1997 and the key itself has been known since 2003 but Diebold has done nothing about it.

(Are you dying to know how to hack into a Diebold machine? Unless your local registrar has bothered to change it, here's the key: F2654hD4. And the 8-byte password used for Diebolds voter, administrator, and ender cards is ED 0A ED 0A ED 0A ED 0A. Aren't you glad this stuff is so easily found on the internet?)

There's simply no excuse for tolerating even the perception that the voting process is so easily open to abuse. I'm no conspiracy monger, but the fact that Diebold hasn't corrected these problems despite the fact that they're obvious, widely known, and easy to fix, does nothing except provoke suspicion well deserved or not that they're stonewalling deliberately. I mean, why act so damn guilty unless they really are guilty?

Kevin Drum 8:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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THE EVER-GROWING DISAPPOINTED-IN-BUSH CLUB....Bill Kristol, who's not just a neocon but a second generation neocon, cranked up his long-festering criticism of the Bush administration's war efforts today, telling Chris Wallace that "we have not had a serious three-year effort to fight a war in Iraq." Kristol now joins Francis Fukuyama in the disappointed neocon club, William F. Buckley and Bruce Bartlett in the disappointed normal-con club, and guys like Richard Clarke and Michael Scheuer in the disappointed mega-hawk club. Pretty soon, in one of those weird inversions so common in politics, John McCain is going to be the only friend George Bush has left.

In any case, it turns out that Digby's reaction to Kristol was similar to mine: doesn't this sound an awful lot like the old school Marxist lament that you can't say communism failed since it was never really put into practice anywhere? Given neoconservatism's Trotskyite origins I suppose this parallel isn't a surprise or anything, and I look forward to coming across a disparaging reference to "actual existing neoconservatism" someday soon. It should be the start of an entertaining bloodletting.

Kevin Drum 7:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (119)

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A DEAL WITH IRAN?....Hmmm. Iran says it has reached an agreement to allow its uranium enrichment to be done on Russian soil:

"Regarding this joint venture, we have reached a basic agreement," said Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the country's nuclear chief....

"There are different parts that need to be discussed," he said, according to Russian news agencies. "These are not just related to forming a company, there are other elements. There are political issues and the proposal should be seen as a package."

He went on to say that Iran has "set a precondition," which he declined to specify. Russian analysts following the talks said Iran wants security guarantees that it would not be attacked by the United States.

There's no telling how real this is or what the "political issues" actually are, but if it turns out to have genuine substance it will force the United States to make a choice: what, if anything, are we willing to give up in return for credible guarantees that Iran is not developing a nuclear bomb?

As it happens, there's probably no set of guarantees that would be acceptable to both sides. But what if there were? If the international community were able to defy the odds and get Iranian agreement to an inspection regime that was strict and verifiable and that didn't involve Israeli disarmament as one of its "preconditions" would we be willing to sign some kind of security/nonagression treaty with Iran? Or would the Bush administration quickly concoct an intricate set of nonnegotiable stumbling blocks related to Iraq/Syria/Hezbollah/etc. that torpedoed the whole thing?

I'm just chatting out loud here since there's not really enough substance in the news reports to come to any firm conclusions. Feel free to chime in in comments.

Kevin Drum 6:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD....AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU....I suppose this is old news to a lot of people, but this column in the New York Times was the first I'd heard of Paul English, a man who's fighting the good fight for those of us who have spent too many years stuck in call center hell:

Last summer, fed up with too many aggravating run-ins with awful customer service, Mr. English posted a blog entry that reverberated around the world: a "cheat sheet" that explained how to break through automated interactive voice-response systems at a handful of companies and speak to a human being. He named the companies and published their codes for reaching an operator codes that they did not share with the public.

....The Get Human cheat sheet makes for entertaining and mystifying reading. Want to reach an operator at a certain major bank? Just press 0#0#0#0#0#0#. Want to reach an agent at a big dental insurance company? Press 00000, wait through a message, select language, 4, 0. Want to reach a human at a leading consumer electronics retailer? Press 111## and wait through three prompts asking for your home phone number.

That is a handy cheat sheet to stick on your refrigerator door, isn't it? And in case you don't have it around the next time you're tearing your hair out on the phone, the most common method by far for getting a human on line appears to be pressing 0 over and over and over until your fingers fall off.

And there's good news too: if you have problems with your beer, Anheuser-Busch still routes you directly to a live person when you call them. Cheers!

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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February 25, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

TRAINING REPORT....Four months ago the Pentagon reported that the number of "level one" Iraqi battalions had dropped from three to one. On Friday they reported that although that number has now dropped to zero, 53 battalions are at level two, up from 36 in October. There's reason to be skeptical that this is good news, though. Note the definitions:

"Level one" means the battalion is able to fight on its own; "level two" means it requires support from U.S. troops; and "level three" means it must fight alongside U.S. troops.

I suspect it's fairly easy to fudge the difference between level 2 and level 3, but you can't do that with level 1. A battalion can either operate on its own or it can't. The fact that not one single level 2 battalion has made it to level 1 in the past year suggests that perhaps games are being played with the level 2 designation.

There's another reason to treat these figures with caution. Last November the Washington Post reported that military planners have a "rule of thumb" for gauging whether it's possible to draw down American troops in Iraq:

The formula estimates that for every three Iraqi battalions and one Iraqi brigade headquarters achieving a readiness rating of level two, a U.S. battalion can be dropped.

We've got 17 more level 2 battalions than we did in October, so why isn't anyone talking about cutting back on U.S. troops? Either "level 2" doesn't mean much, or else events on the ground have gotten so much worse that we need all the extra troops we can get.

Neither of these thoughts is very comforting. And given the fact that Iraqi troops appear to be mostly private armies run by local theocrats anyway, you have to half wonder if all this training is even doing any good. Are we just guaranteeing a more efficient civil war?

Kevin Drum 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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HEROISM....Over at The Corner, Warren Bell calls for Hollywood to make more movies about "the heroism of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq." In particular, he'd like to see someone make a movie about the death of football star Pat Tillman, who left his lucrative civilian career to join the Army in 2002 and was killed in Afghanistan 2004. So, courtesy of Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle, here's the story:

Tillmans death came at a sensitive time for the Bush administration just a week before the Armys abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq became public and sparked a huge scandal. The Pentagon immediately announced that Tillman had died heroically in combat with the enemy, and President Bush hailed him as an inspiration on and off the football field, as with all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror.....Not until five weeks later, as Tillmans battalion was returning home, did officials inform the public and the Tillman family that he had been killed by his fellow soldiers.

....Mary Tillman believes that with her sons high profile, and the fact that Rumsfeld sent him a personal letter, the word [that Pat had been killed by friendly fire] quickly reached the defense secretary. If Pat was on Rumsfelds radar, its pretty likely that he would have been informed right away after he was killed, she said.

....The administration clearly was using this case for its own political reasons, said the father, Patrick Tillman. This cover-up started within minutes of Pats death, and it started at high levels. This is not something that (lower-ranking) people in the field do, he said.

....Tillmans unique character...was more complex than the public image of a gung-ho patriotic warrior....Mary Tillman said a friend of Pats even arranged a private meeting with [Noam] Chomsky, the antiwar author, to take place after his return from Afghanistan a meeting prevented by his death. She said that although he supported the Afghan war, believing it justified by the Sept. 11 attacks, Pat was very critical of the whole Iraq war.

....I can see it like a movie screen, [Spc. Russell] Baer said....We were at an old air base, me, Kevin and Pat, we werent in the fight right then. We were talking. And Pat said, You know, this war is so f illegal. And we all said, Yeah. Thats who he was. He totally was against Bush.

Another soldier in the platoon, who asked not to be identified, said Pat urged him to vote for Bushs Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, Sen. John Kerry.

Let's recap: Tillman, a genuine hero who wanted to go to Afghanistan to fight al-Qaeda, was instead sent initially to Iraq to fight in a war he thought was stupid and illegal. On the big screen, this would play out as a symbol of George Bush's feckless attitude toward Osama bin Laden that practically kicks you in the face. What's more, Tillman's death didn't come during combat, but instead was the result of an enormous fuckup by our own troops. His parents are convinced not without reason that the Army tried to cover this up, and that the Bush administration then spent five weeks touting a phony version of what happened in order to help their political cause during an election year. To cap it all off, his friends say Tillman blamed Bush for the mess in Iraq and supported John Kerry in the 2004 election.

Sounds like an Oliver Stone picture to me. Informed about all this, Bell says defensively that he never asked for "a whitewash of history" and would of course be fine with a movie that told the whole story, warts and all. "Why," he asks, "are e-mailers of liberal sensibility so quick to assume I (and by extension the Right in general) would only accept one-sided propaganda?"

Indeed. What would ever have given us that idea?

Kevin Drum 2:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (163)

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UNDER THE CUSHIONS? IN AN OLD SHOE CLOSET?....A few weeks ago Patrick Fitzgerald revealed that a bunch of email from Vice President Dick Cheney's office had mysteriously disappeared. Apparently the White House decided to look a little harder for it:

[Scooter Libby's] defense was told that the White House had recently located and turned over about 250 pages of e-mails from the vice president's office. Fitzgerald, in a letter last month to the defense, had cautioned Libby's lawyers that some e-mails might be missing because the White House's archiving system had failed.

Generally speaking, the document management systems used to archive email are pretty straightforward to use. I'd sure love to hear an explanation of how these emails were "lost" and then "recovered" again.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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MORE PORTS....In principle, this doesn't really change anything, but it is disconcerting to learn at this late date that P&O actually runs operations at 21 U.S. ports, not six. Sure enough, though, if you go to "P&O Ports North America," rather than to the main P&O corporate site, you'll find descriptions of operations at ports from Freeport, Texas, to Portland, Maine.

The story about the acquisition of P&O by Dubai Ports World has been bubbling for a couple of weeks now, and has been in high gear for several days. Did no one really see fit to correct the media's misimpression that only six ports would be affected by the deal?

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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February 24, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

DEALING WITH DUBAI....Michael Ledeen says that there's a longstanding and well accepted way of handling things like the Dubai port deal. Here's his recommendation:

  1. Create an American company to handle the matter (if foreigners wish to buy in, or even buy it, that's ok);

  2. Wall off the foreign investors/owners. They are silent partners. They have no say in the actual operation;

  3. Create a "classified Board" composed of people with security clearances and experience in sensitive matters;

  4. Appoint a CEO and other top executives with experience and clearances.

This is....surprisingly....reasonable. Did Ledeen really write it, or someone posing as him?

Not that it really matters, of course, since the DPW/P&O deal is now the Terri Schiavo of corporate acquisitions: plainly dead, even though there are still a few people kidding themselves into thinking the occasional twitch is a genuine sign of life. If Congress passes legislation making this official, and Bush vetoes it (unlikely), I figure a veto override vote of about 90-10 in the Senate and 400-35 in the House. Even Republicans who typically win their seats with 70% of the vote realize that this is an issue that could force them back into the cold, unforgiving hands of the private sector come November.

The real answer, I imagine, is for the deal to go through but for DPW to sell off its American operations to some other company. They'd have to sell at a fire sale price, but that's the price of fame sometimes. Sic transit and all that.

Kevin Drum 7:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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IRAQ'S PENDING CIVIL WAR, CONT'D....On the other hand, after a couple of days of violence Iraq's leading clerics seem to be united in calling for calm:

Iraq's most influential Shia political leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, said the bombers who attacked the shrine in Samarra "do not represent Sunnis in Iraq".

....Despite the curfew in Baghdad, followers of radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr attended his sermon in the Sadr City district, hearing him urge restraint. "We are not enemies but brothers," he told them. "Anyone who attacks a Muslim is not a Muslim."

A large crowd similarly attended prayers at the Abu Hanifa mosque, Baghdad's most important Sunni site. Imam Ahmed Hasan al-Taha said the bombing was a conspiracy to draw Iraqis into sectarian conflict.

Whether this conciliatory attitude lasts beyond the next provocation or even beyond next week seems increasingly less likely to me. But it's still encouraging to hear a widespread call from Iraqi clerics to calm down following Wednesday's bombing.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (199)

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AN AMERICAN IN BAGHDAD....In an article written before the bombing of the al-Askari shrine, Lawrence Kaplan writes that Iraq is hopelessly divided between Shia and Sunni:

Sheik Humam Hamoudi, one of Iraq's most powerful Shia and a leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq...likens the effect of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to "a child when he wants to walk and you ask him to play football." Absent the Americans, he says, Baghdad would be transformed into another Beirut.

....Sheik Abdullah Al Yawar Hamoudi's mirror image in the Sunni community echoes his concern...."If the Americans leave," he warns, "there will be rivers of blood." In their own way, then, both sheiks see the U.S. military presence for exactly what it has become: a buffer between Iraq's sects and between relative order and complete mayhem.

It's worth reading the whole piece, which contains lots of telling detail. Kaplan demonstrates pretty convincingly that Iraq is corrupt, divided, and hopelessly sectarian, and takes this as evidence that the United States needs to stay. And I suppose that's the conventional way to look at it.

But it's not what I got out of Kaplan's description. Rather, his article persuaded me that the American presence is hopelessly ineffectual and increasingly pointless. Sure, it's possible that our presence can prevent Iraq from descending into an immediate, full-scale civil war, but Kaplan's own evidence seems to indicate that while we might be preventing immediate mayhem, we're not changing any of the underlying dynamics of Iraqi society, even at the margins. If we stuck around for a decade and finally left in 2016, Iraq would be a bloodbath in 2017.

It may be that I'm just reading my own prejudices into Kaplan's accounts, but I think there's more to it than that. He pretty much convinced me that Baghdad really is Beirut, and that's hardly a comforting comparison. Does anyone think the United States would have been well advised to spend a couple of decades occupying Lebanon? Would things have turned out any better there if we had?

At this point, it's impossible to say if things might have turned out differently if George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had roused themselves to care about the messy and tedious business of nation building back in 2002. I don't pretend to know the answer for sure. But go ahead and read Kaplan's article and decide for yourself. It certainly didn't have the inspirational effect on me that I think he was aiming for.

Kevin Drum 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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ANOTHER PRESS SUBPOENA....MarketWatch columnist Herb Greenberg is the latest journalist to be threatened with a subpoena:

The subpoena seeks "all" unpublished "communications," including emails and phone records, between me and people and organizations I've quoted and at least one I've never quoted regarding five stocks. Never mind that I have never written about one of those companies. And never mind that the other four (yes, including Overstock) deserved every word I wrote and then some.

Dragging the press into this kind of investigation is hardly standard operating procedure for the SEC, whose job is to enforce securities laws. We're not talking national security, here.

No, it's not national security, and Greenberg isn't James Risen or Dana Priest. But a reporter is a reporter, and if anonymous sources stop talking to them because they're afraid they'll be given up under threat of contempt or jail time, then anonymous sources will just start clamming up. And that's bad for everyone. As Greenberg says:

If my unpublished communications aren't safe from government eyes, then the tools of every business reporter in this country become fair game for any company that doesn't like scrutiny and chooses to play the "conspiracy" card.

If that happens, sorry to say dear readers you will be on your own when it comes to policing public companies.

The SEC needs to back down. And if they don't, Congress needs to start setting rules about what anonymous sources can and can't count on when they talk to reporters.

Kevin Drum 11:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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NOT JUST INCOMPETENCE....Michael Hirsh has a decent rundown in Newsweek today of how badly George Bush and his team have botched the war on terror, although I'd take minor issue with this:

How then did we arrive at this day, with anti-American Islamist governments rising in the Mideast, bin Laden sneering at us, Qaeda lieutenants escaping from prison, Iran brazenly enriching uranium, and America as hated and mistrusted as it ever has been? The answer, in a word, is incompetence.

Yes, there's been incompetence to spare, but there's also been considered policy at work, policy that deliberately marginalized our allies, tackled fake threats at the expense of real ones, made preemptive war our default preference, and criminally misjudged the actual nature of the conflict we're in. Even if it had been executed well, it still would have been disastrous.

But sure: incompetent too. The damage that George Bush has done to the United States is going to be with us for a very long time.

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MORE GUANTANAMO....Knight Ridder reports on the latest disclosures about interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay during the 2002-2004 period when Major General Geoffrey Miller was in charge of the prison there:

Military interrogators posing as FBI agents at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, wrapped terrorism suspects in an Israeli flag and forced them to watch homosexual pornography under strobe lights during interrogation sessions that lasted as long as 18 hours, according to one of a batch of FBI memos released Thursday.

Honestly, when I read this stuff I don't know whether to be more disgusted by the moral obtuseness it displays or by its sheer stupidity. Maybe this will help make up my mind:

Military interrogators "are adamant that their interrogation strategies are the best ones to use despite a lack of evidence of their success," [an e-mail] said.

The same e-mail complained that the military officer overseeing interrogations, a lieutenant colonel whose name was blocked out, "blatantly misled the Pentagon into believing that the (FBI's behavioral-analysis team) had endorsed the (military's) aggressive and controversial interrogation plan" during a teleconference with Pentagon officials.

The Pentagon's response? The usual. They've never had a policy that "encouraged or condoned abuse of detainees at Guantanamo." They must practice saying that with a straight face for hours every day.

Kevin Drum 1:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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February 23, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

FEARMONGERING....William Greider writes that George Bush has used war and terror as a partisan cudgel for the past five years, and the culture of fear he's nurtured so cynically has been the cornerstone of his political success:

So why is the fearmonger-in-chief being so casual about this Dubai business? Because at some level of consciousness even George Bush knows the inflated fears are bogus. So do a lot of the politicians merrily throwing spears at him. He taught them how to play this game, invented the tactics and reorganized political competition as a demagogic dance of hysterical absurdities, endless opportunities to waste public money. Very few dare to challenge the mindset.

....It would be nice to imagine this ridiculous episode will prompt reconsideration, cool down exploitative jingoism and provoke a more rational discussion of the multiplying absurdities. I doubt it. At least it will be satisfying to see Bush toasted irrationally, since he lit the match.

On a related note, it makes me feel almost nostalgic to watch the toxic stew of cherry picking, half truths, and outright misrepresentations currently being used to demonize the UAE as a virtual arm of al-Qaeda. You know what it reminds me of? The way Bush & Co. tried to sell Saddam Hussein as Osama's best buddy in the Middle East. It's poetic watching the Bushies squirm when they're on the receiving end of this stuff.

Kevin Drum 10:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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FEMA-IZING THE FED....If you were nominating someone for a seat on the Federal Reserve, what would you look for? At a guess, you'd want someone with a PhD in economics and a good background in monetary policy, right?

Instead, how about a law degree, a few years of experience in the M&A trenches at Morgan Stanley, a well honed loyalty to the White House, and a father who donates a lot of money to Republican causes? Because that's what we just got in 35-year-old Kevin Warsh, who was recently confirmed to an empty Fed seat. As Noam Scheiber says:

Even the heyday of Reagan-era economic quackery didn't produce a Fed nominee as lacking in qualifications or experience as this one. The only way you appoint Kevin Warsh to a seat on the Federal Reserve board is if you have little respect for the practice of economic policy-making and you're not ashamed to admit it. But, then, we already knew that about George W. Bush.

I understand why Republicans continue to rubber stamp appointments like this, but what's up with Senate Democrats? This is the Fed, for God's sake, not an ambassadorship to Luxembourg. What excuse do they have?

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DARFUR....So why isn't anyone interested in doing much about the Sudanese-sponsored genocide in Darfur? Well, China and Russia both want Sudan's oil and the United States wants Sudan's intelligence. And nobody's much interested in sending their kids to Africa to die in someone else's war.

But will the U.S. do the right thing anyway, two years after Colin Powell admitted that the war in Darfur was genocide? UN ambassador John Bolton has been making the right noises lately, but Mark Leon Goldberg of the American Prospect says that the most immediate way to demonstrate seriousness on this issue is to support sanctions against Salah Abdala Gosh:

The Prospect has obtained a confidential annex to a January 30th Security Council report that identifies the 17 Sudanese individuals whom a panel of U.N. experts concluded were most responsible for war crimes and impeding the peace process....By far the most prominent name of the 17 recommended for immediate sanction is Salah Abdala Gosh.

You may not know that name, but the Central Intelligence Agency certainly does, and Langley wont be thrilled if he is placed under an international travel ban. He is the director of Sudans National Security and Intelligence Services. And when Osama bin Laden found haven in Sudan from 1990 to 1996, Gosh was his personal government minder. Last year, Ken Silverstein of the Los Angeles Times detailed the extensive counterintelligence cooperation between Gosh and the CIA, and reported that the CIA even flew Gosh to CIA headquarters on a private jet to swap trade secrets.

The UN Security Council hasn't acted on the sanctions list yet, but Mark reports today that Sudan is responding to the recommendations very nervously. "A little threat seems to go a very long way with this regime," he says.

President Bush recently came out in favor of a NATO intervention in Darfur, and I'll happily support this if it's sufficiently serious to get the job done. It's hard to say if the proposal currently on the table meets that test and even harder to say if Europe will get off its ass and show any interest but in the meantime imposing sanctions on the thugs responsible for the killings is surely the absolute least we can do if we want to demonstrate some moral leadership on this issue. Keep an eye on Bolton to see which way the wind is blowing.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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LARRY SUMMERS, R.I.P....So why was Larry Summers finally forced to resign as president of Harvard? The Washington Post chalks it up to lefty political correctness: the faculty hated him because he was mean to Cornel West and because he implied that women were too dim to do high level math and science. Matt Yglesias says it's because he tried to take power away from Harvard's biggest academic fiefdom, and the fiefdom didn't like it. Richard Bradley says it's because Summers was too cozy with the power politics of Washington DC and never fit in to the ways of Cambridge. Professor B says it's because he was a jerk.

That sure is a lot of reasons. I'm surprised he lasted five months, let alone five years.

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ENZO-GATE...I don't know if this has made the news in the rest of the country, but we have an entertaining story developing here in Southern California. Yesterday morning, police found a million dollar Ferrari Enzo completely wrecked on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, apparently after running into a pole at 120 miles per hour during a drag race with a Mercedes-Benz SLR.

Nobody was hurt (!), but the car's owner, Stefan Eriksson, provided police with the following alibi: he wasn't driving the car. He was only a passenger. The driver was a "German guy named Dietrich" who ran away right after the crash, leaving Eriksson to take the fall. Eriksson doesn't know anything more about the guy.

The official word is that "detectives are skeptical of that explanation." Ya think?

Kevin Drum 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (103)

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EXON-FLORIO....Did the committee that oversees foreign acquisitions of U.S. corporations break the law by not conducting a 45-day investigation of Dubai Port's proposed purchase of P&O? The law in question, called the Exon-Florio provision, requires a 30-day review followed, in some cases, by a more thorough 45-day investigation. For state-owned corporations, the investigation is required if the acquisition "could affect the national security of the U.S."

So what triggers this provision? Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt, who chairs the vetting committee, had this to say:

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Kimmitt said that...on Jan. 17 the panel members unanimously approved the transfer. "None of them objected to the deal proceeding on national security grounds," he said.

....An objection from any member of the interagency committee would have started, as required by law, an additional 45-day review.

Is this right? The idea that the Dubai deal "could" affect national security seems pretty hard to argue with, but obviously somebody has to make that determination and Kimmitt is saying that, legally, it's the committee itself that does it. If they unanimously decide there are no national security issues, then the 45-day investigation isn't required.

Is that right? Any Exon-Florio experts out there who can weigh in?

Kevin Drum 10:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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THE REAL PROBLEM....The real problem with our ports has very little to do with who runs the stevedoring operations. Instead, it's this:

The administration's core problem at the ports, most experts agree, is how long it has taken for the federal government to set and enforce new security standards and to provide the technology to look inside millions of containers that flow through them.

Only 4 percent or 5 percent of those containers are inspected. There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who enter and leave the ports to pick them up. If a nuclear weapon is put inside a container the real fear here "it will probably happen when some truck driver is paid off to take a long lunch, before he even gets near a terminal," said [Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander who is an expert on port security at the Council on Foreign Relations].

...."I'm not worried about who is running the New York port," a senior inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency said, insisting he could not be named because the agency's work is considered confidential. "I'm worried about what arrives at the New York port."

If the Dubai issue prompts Congress and the president and the public to start taking port security seriously, at least some good will have come out of this whole mess.

Also worth reading is this Washington Post story about the larger issue of foreign investment in the U.S. The basic problem is that because we've been running trade deficits for so long, countries in Asia and the Middle East have hundreds of billions of dollars that are currently parked primarily in financial instruments. At some point, they're going to want to spend that money, and that means buying hard assets in the United States. We've been buying their oil and their electronic doodads on credit for a long time, and at some point that bill is going to come due. Port operations are just the tip of the iceberg.

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (128)

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THE NEXT PORT SCANDAL....Tomorrow's news today! When Dubai Ports World won its now infamous bid to acquire P&O, it beat out an offer by rival PSA International. PSA, which stands for "Port of Singapore Authority," is owned by the state of Singapore.

So what's next for PSA International? The Telegraph has the story:

[PSA head Eddie Teh] is now expected to take a serious look at Stevedoring Services, which has container terminals along the US West Coast and is one of the last remaining big players in the industry.

PSA already operates ports in four European countries, and if it acquires Stevedoring Services it will end up running terminal services in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Charleston, New Orleans, and a whole bunch of other U.S. cities.

So....how do we feel about a state-owned port operator taking control of terminals all over the United States? Singapore, after all, though nominally a democracy, is in reality a dynastic, authoritarian state. It has a sizable Muslim population of its own, and is surrounded by the predominantly Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which are known to harbor al-Qaeda cells.

Are we OK with these guys running our ports? Just asking.....

Kevin Drum 12:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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February 22, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE ON THE DUBAI PORT FIASCO....Jim Geraghty, who now believes that the Dubai port deal is A-OK, gets today's award for the most unintentionally hilarious defense of the blogosphere's handling of the story. The problem, he says, is that we trusted the mainstream media:

Im generally a big fan of the New York Post, but the way this story [link here] arranges the facts appears to be some pretty blatant scaremongering.

Reactionary scaremongering? From the New York Post? Say it ain't so!

Elsewhere, Michael Tomasky, who makes an unsettling reference to settling "this Kevin Drum business," suggests that we look to congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, an expert on port security, for advice on how to think about all this. As it turns out, Nadler doesn't actually have much to say about it, but he does say this:

The Bush Administration has a highly troubling record of handing contracts and lucrative positions to individuals on the basis of personal friendship not the public interest. Given the Presidents cozy relationship with the governments of oil-rich nations, I think its only natural for alarm bells to be going off. We need time for Congress to take a hard look at this proposal.

Truer words were never spoken. And given the Republican Party's five-year effort to caricature liberals as panty-waisted Osama lovers for doing nothing more than holding positions startlingly similar to Bush's on the Dubai port deal, we would need to be veritable saints not to get a frisson of pleasure from holding their feet to the fire over this. It's time for the modern GOP to get a taste of its own dog food.

Still, unlike the NSA wiretap issue, it doesn't appear (so far) that there was any actual foul play in the Dubai deal. The DPW acquisition was approved through the usual channels, Congress isn't normally involved in oversight on these things, and the Exon-Florio provision requires not that the DPW deal undergo a 45-day investigation, but that the investigation be completed within 45 days (although the actual requirements in this case are a little hazy, I admit).

At the same time, it's not exactly nonsensical to have a few qualms about a state-owned Arab company taking over operations at half a dozen big U.S. ports, and you'd think someone in the administration would have been smart enough to figure this out. As Nadler says, slowing down and having Congress take a closer look at the Dubai deal makes sense, even if my hopes for anything other than multiple hours of camera-hogging bluster are pretty minimal. Doing things in daylight is usually for the best, so let's get everything out in the open and see what happens.

UPDATE: More on the Exon-Florio provision here.

Kevin Drum 9:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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IRAQ ON THE EDGE?....Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor says that the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra is very bad news:

As citizens deserted the streets of Baghdad in the wake of the attack, many said they feared this could be a seminal moment in Iraq's low-intensity civil war.

"The war could really be on now,'' says Abu Hassan, a Shiite street peddler who declined to give his full name. "This is something greater and more symbolic than attacks on people. This is a strike at who we are."

...."This could be a tipping point,'' says Juan Cole, a historian of Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan. "At some point, the Shiite street is going to be so fed up that they're not going to listen any more to calls for restraint."

The BBC rounds up reaction in the rest of the country:

  • In Baghdad, a Sunni mosque in Baladiya district is raked with gunfire, while black-clad militiamen of the Shia Mehdi Army demonstrate in Sadr City; six Sunnis die in violence

  • In Basra, gunmen attack Sunni mosques and exchange fire with guards at an office of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party

  • Businesses shut down in Najaf and about 1,000 march through the streets, waving flags and shouting slogans

  • Markets, shops and stalls close in Diwaniya, AP says. A Mehdi Army militiaman is killed in clashes after gunmen from the faction attack Sunni houses, Reuters news agency reports

  • About 3,000 people demonstrate in the Shia city of Kut, chanting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans and burning US and Israeli flags, AP says.

Is this the incident that will finally turn Iraq into the West Bank writ large? If Iran succeeds in convincing people that American and Israeli forces are to blame for the bombing, it might be.

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CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM UPDATE....I thought I had some modestly encouraging news for Californians this morning, but then I got this email about the campaign finance legislation that I wrote about earlier today:

I work for one of the Democrats in the State Assembly who voted for Loni Hancock's bill. It's true that many Republicans hate it the idea of their tax dollars helping elect a pro-choice candidate makes them sick but the sad truth is that many Democrats dislike it too. The only reason Ms. Hancock's legislation passed is because it was essentially gutted, turned into no more than intent language. In its current form it does nothing, and my guess is it never will.

Why would so many Dems be against this idea? Deep pocket interests have a lot to do with it. Liberal Dems listen to unions, tribes, and consumer attorneys, while moderates (who hold more sway than most Californians think) kowtow to insurance, big corporate, and chambers of commerce. All these groups have a good thing going, and are scared that "clean money" could screw it up.

Sigh. If there are any California policy wonks out there who can shed some more light on this, comments are open.

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BIG BOOKS....This will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody who reads this blog, but I love books like this. Too bad about that $825 price tag, though.

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(MUCH) MORE ON THE DUBAI PORT DEAL....I'm still open to argument on the Dubai port deal, but this is looking more and more like a mindless feeding frenzy to me. So far, I've only heard a couple of arguments against the deal that are even colorable.

First, Atrios points out that Dubai Ports World (DPW) isn't a private company, it's a state-owned company. It's one thing to have a foreign company operating some of our shipping terminals, but a foreign state?

The problem is that this is just the nature of the shipping business. As the Financial Times reports, state-owned companies already operate terminals in the U.S., including China Shipping at the Port of Los Angeles and APL (owned by Singapore's state-owned NOL) in Oakland. "The US container port industry would be unworkable without companies controlled by foreign governments," says a British analyst. Furthermore, DPW and Singapore's state-owned PSA are the third and fourth largest port operators in the world, and China's Hutchison Ports already refuses to invest in the U.S. If all of these firms are shut out of the country, we lose access to some of the best and most efficient port operators in the world.

Second, Matt Yglesias notes that "Giving Bush the benefit of the doubt is not a sound policy as a general matter." That's an excellent point. And causing Bush some political pain is a worthy goal.

But there are limits, and encouraging the xenophobic jingoism that's driving this controversy is a little too much for me. Unless there are serious substantive reasons to oppose this deal, I'm not willing to jump on the bandwagon solely because it's an opportunity for some righteous Bush bashing.

I also did a bit of Googling to find out what a few actual port operators thought of this deal last week before it turned into quite such a media circus. They seemed pretty sangune about the whole thing:

New Orleans: Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive of the New Orleans port, said he was surprised by the sale but not overly concerned.

Baltimore: F. Brooks Royster III, director of the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the public marine terminals, said an infusion of money from Dubai Ports World might help the port expand. Two days later: "Theyre not here to insert terrorists into the country....I dont have a concern in that regard."

Philadelphia: William P. McLaughlin, public affairs director for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which owns major general-cargo terminals on the Pennsylvania side of the river, said security and other port operations issues are spelled out in the lease and should not be affected by the change.

Miami: Port of Miami-Dade executives aren't concerned. "They are not buying the Port of Miami," said Deputy Port Director Khalid Salahuddin. "They are buying part of one of the operators at the port."

Tampa: Amid growing criticism of a deal to give a United Arab Emirates company a major presence in U.S. ports, Tampa Port Authority commissioners....authorized port director Richard Wainio to sign a contract to bring the British company at the center of the controversy to Tampa to run cargo handing at the public agency's docks.... Wainio called the deal with P&O a critical step for the port and the region.

What's more, as I noted earlier, dock workers themselves would continue to be American union members, and port security would continue to be provided by the Coast Guard and U.S. customs. It also seems noteworthy that DPW's acquisition of P&O would give it control of port operations in lots of other countries besides the U.S., including P&O's home country of Great Britain, and everyone else seems to be OK with that. What do we think we know that Britain and Belgium don't?

In the end, there's nothing left to this controversy except the raw question of whether the government of the United Arab Emirates is sympathetic to international terrorism and therefore likely to implement policies that would make it easier for al-Qaeda to infiltrate ports in the U.S. something most analysts seem to think is pretty far-fetched. God knows I wouldn't mind some congressional oversight on this question, especially if it prompted some serious action on actual port security, but if turns out that the UAE is really untrustworthy then I'd like to find someplace else for the Navy to park their ships too. The port of Dubai is the busiest port of call for the United States Navy outside the continental United States.

In the absence of serious evidence of untrustworthiness, though, I'd prefer to walk the liberal internationalism walk instead of jumping ship for short term political gain. I've said before that engaging seriously with the Arab world is the best way of fighting terrorism, and I meant it. This is a chance to do exactly that.

UPDATE: The Council on Foreign Relations has a pretty decent Q&A-style rundown of the port deal here.

UPDATE 2: I just want to make something super clear here. If jumping on the Dubai hysteria bandwagon merely hurt George Bush politically and prompted some additional interest in port security, I'd be all for it. What do I care if the DPW/P&O deal goes through? But the whole thing feeds on a mindless anti-Arab jingoism that's genuinely dangerous, and that's why I'm not joining the fun unless I hear some really good reasons for doing so. As liberals, we're either serious about engaging with the Muslim world in a sensible, non-hysterical way or we're not. Which is it?

Kevin Drum 2:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (298)

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WHAT DO ABORTION AND CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM HAVE IN COMMON?....Sam Rosenfeld talked to Rep. Louise Slaughter about serious campaign finance reform yesterday. Here was her reaction:

I think what the sense really is we keep getting stuck with McCain-Feingold here is that the public wouldn't stand for it. I think we're held in such minimum, low regard that if people started to talk about public financing for elections they'd go nuts....I don't hear any talk about public financing at this point.

That doesn't sound right to me people would "go nuts"? but it's a good example of the importance of working at the state level that I mentioned yesterday. Both Arizona and Maine have implemented radical public finance laws that work well and are popular, nicely described here by Micah Sifry:

In both states, candidates for state offices win public financing on condition that they raise and spend no private money (including their own) and abide by stringent spending limits. To qualify, these Clean Elections candidates have to raise a large number of $5 contributions from voters in their district (the opposite of the system in most states, where candidates raise a small number of large contributions from a tiny, wealthy elite). Candidates who choose to run clean get public funds, and, if they are outspent by a privately financed opponent, additional matching funds are available.

California is starting to look like it might follow suit this year. Loni Hancock's periodic effort to introduce Arizona-style campaign finance reform actually passed the Assembly a couple of weeks ago, which is better than it's ever done before. The odds are still against ultimate passage (Republicans hate it, of course), but if it passed in California I imagine it would have a tremendous impact on the rest of the country. It would be a big step forward in reducing the constant background buzz of corruption caused by our current culture of permanent fundraising.

[UPDATE: It looks like I spoke too soon. More here.]

And in other state news, South Dakota is about to ban abortion in the hopes that John Paul Stevens will die soon and a new George Bushified Supreme Court will uphold their shiny new uterus regulation legislation. Yet another reason not to bother taking a vacation to see Mount Rushmore.

Kevin Drum 11:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (158)

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DAVID IRVING....Michael Shermer, who's actually met and interviewed Holocaust denier David Irving, thinks Austria did the wrong thing by sentencing him to prison for expressing his views:

Austria's treatment of Irving as a political dissident should offend both the people who defend the rights of political cartoonists to express their opinion of Islamic terrorists and the civil libertarians who leaped to the defense of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill when he exercised his right to call the victims of 9/11 "little Eichmanns." Why doesn't it? Why aren't freedom lovers everywhere offended by Irving's court conviction?

Freedom is a principle that must be applied indiscriminately. We have to defend Irving in order to defend ourselves. Once the laws are in place to jail dissidents of Holocaust history, what's to stop such laws from being applied to dissenters of religious or political histories, or to skepticism of any sort that deviates from the accepted canon?

I've already mentioned this briefly before, but I agree. As usual with free speech issues, this isn't a question of whether Irving's speech is odious, it's a question of whether the state should be allowed to declare it illegal. This is a power that I'm very reluctant to concede to central governments, which is why I generally oppose hate speech laws and think that Tony Blair is insane for pushing legislation to ban the act of "glorifying terrorism" whatever that is.

As Shermer says, it's at least understandable that countries like Germany and Austria have laws that ban Holocaust denial. There's some history there. But at some point they have to decide if they've matured enough since World War II to trust their own citizens not to fall prey en masse to the ranting hatred of loons like David Irving. It's unfortunate that apparently they don't feel they have.

Kevin Drum 10:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (131)

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PORTGATE....So what's up with this Dubai port deal, anyway? I hate to say it, but I can't help but think that Bush may be right about the whole thing. Just for the record:

  • This isn't a matter of outsourcing a government operation to a private company. P&O has been operating ports in the United States (and the rest of the world) for a long time, and they do it under contract with the port authorities, not the federal government. What's more, there are plenty of port operators in the United States besides P&O that are foreign owned too.

  • P&O doesn't "own" the ports, they just manage one or more terminals at each of their ports and try to make money by attracting shipping companies to their terminals.

  • P&O was on the auction block no matter what. If Dubai Ports hadn't purchased them, PSA International of Singapore would have acquired them instead.

  • Port workers would mostly (all?) be American union members regardless of who owns the management company. Security will continue to be provided by the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs.

Politically, this whole thing is astoundingly tone deaf, especially since Bush did it without consulting anyone in Congress. Substantively, though, I'm not quite sure I get the fuss. Would we really be any safer if P&O were acquired by a Singaporean company? Frankly, the real scandal is that we're not already handling port security as if every port management company in the U.S. had a member of al-Qaeda on its board of directors.

Am I missing something? Substantively, that is, not politically.

Kevin Drum 1:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (298)

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DEAD AIR....If you're wondering where I've been all day, I was up in Culver City trying out to be a contestant on Jeopardy. I think about a quarter of the applicants were attorneys. What's up with that?

As for me, I did OK except for the fact that I have a voice made for blogging. All that's left now is to wait and see if they call me to be on the show sometime over the next year. Tick tick tick.....

Kevin Drum 1:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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February 21, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESSIVE LEGISLATIVE ACTION NETWORK....In a cover article in the current issue of In These Times titled "Forget D.C.the Battle is in the States," Nathan Newman and David Sirota write about the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative membership group focused on state legislators:

ALEC claims more than 2,400 state lawmakers as members roughly one-third of all state legislators and has become one of the critical fulcrums of conservative power in the United States.

....In 2004 alone, 1,108 ALEC model bills were introduced and 178 were enacted into law, a legislative assault that ALEC and its conservative allies have been repeating year after year. Given the prominence of its legislative supporters 34 state speakers of the house, 25 state senate presidents, 31 state senate leaders and 33 state house leaders are ALEC members this success is hardly surprising.

Read the whole thing to get the rest of the story (or read the full report the article is based on here). Basically, Nathan and David argue that state and local politics are often more important than national politics (see here and here for some recent examples), but that progressive legislators often don't have the policy and analysis tools available to them that ALEC makes available to conservatives. They aim to change that with a new group called the Progressive Legislative Action Network, and it sounds like a helluva good idea to me. If you want to get involved, click here.

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IN THE TANK....Mark Kleiman would like to see some intellectual rigor from the mainstream media:

Is there any hope of getting the press to distinguish between (1) the original "think tank" the RAND Corporation and comparably respectable universities-without-students (Brookings, the Urban Institute) where real social scientists (and real natural scientists, engineers, mathematicians, historians, and policy analysts) do real research and analysis looking for real answers to real questions and (2) faux "think tanks" (Heritage, Cato, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse) set up for the purpose of providing "studies" in support of pre-determined ideological points?

The distinction isn't hard to make. If you have to read the report to know the conclusion, it's a real think tank. If you know the conclusion as soon as you know the topic and where it was written, you're dealing with a phony.

The distinction might be a little harder to make than Mark admits, but his point is still well taken. However, there's no chance of this happening unless someone comes up with a non-derogatory substitute name for the faux think tanks. Any suggestions?

Kevin Drum 4:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (154)

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FINALLY, THE NAZI CONNECTION....John Podhoretz on the Dubai port deal:

It's possible that this event is George Bush's Bitburg.

Ouch.

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SANTORUM'S HOUSE....Will Bunch writes that Rick Santorum sure can afford a lot of house for a guy who earns $162,000 a year:

A year later, the couple refinanced for $500,000....What was curious was the source of the increased mortgage. It was a new private bank catering to affluent investors and institutions whose officers have contributed $24,000 to Santorums political action committees and re-election campaign called Philadelphia Trust Company.

....The 12-page deed on file in the Loudoun County courthouse does not provide much information about the loan, although it does state that the term is just five years, with repayment of the $500,000 due by November 1, 2007.

Let's see. At an interest rate of, oh, let's say 4%, that's $110,000 in payments per year. Or else a mighty big balloon payment in November 2007, which as Will points out, is conveniently just a few months after Santorum's current term expires.

But I'm sure we're all being unduly suspicious here. There's nothing wrong with friends helping friends, is there?

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EMAIL HELL....The New York Times reports that university professors are increasingly wary of the steady stream of email they get from their students:

These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages from 10 a week to 10 after every class that are too informal or downright inappropriate.

"The tone that they would take in e-mail was pretty astounding," said Michael J. Kessler, an assistant dean and a lecturer in theology at Georgetown University. " 'I need to know this and you need to tell me right now,' with a familiarity that can sometimes border on imperative."

Kessler's observation gibes with the results of a small research project (via Trish Wilson) suggesting that most people don't have a clue how they come across in email. From Wired:

"That's how flame wars get started," says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University.

....The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers.

Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time.

"People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they 'hear' the tone they intend in their head as they write," Epley explains.

And I'll bet that 50% number gets even worse when the sender is, um, emotionally stressed. That's why I always told people who worked for me to never write email when they were angry or even merely annoyed. Never. Do it in person or over the phone, or else just wait to calm down. No matter how angry you are, you'll come across as ten times worse than you mean to when you express it via email.

What makes it worse it that email has an all-too-frequent habit of becoming public, as Boston lawyers William Korman and Dianna Abdala recently found out. The Globe has the entertaining story here. Consider it fair warning.

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A UNITER, NOT A DIVIDER....What happens when a command sergeant major just home from Iraq is denied entrance to a George Bush rally and threatened with arrest because he's brought a couple of his students with him and one of them has a John Kerry sticker on his wallet? Answer: He gets mad. And then he decides to run for Congress. As a Democrat.

The chickens are coming home to roost....

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DEAD MAN WALKING....This whole controversy over "Portgate" a decision by the Bush administration to allow the operations of six big U.S. ports to be managed by a company owned by the United Arab Emirates is fascinating. Not so much for the substantive issues it raises, which are disturbing but a bit murky, but for what it says about the waning political power of the Bush White House.

What it shows is that Bush still doesn't understand how much influence he's recently lost with his conservative base. In the brave new post-Harriet, post-Katrina world, outrage over the Dubai port deal has been driven equally by both liberal critics and conservatives like Michelle Malkin and administration uber-stalwart Hugh Hewitt, who are no longer willing to simply take Bush's word for it that they should trust him on this issue. For today's chastened conservatives, it's "trust but verify" when it comes to the Bush administration.

This is a fairly stunning turnaround for a White House that has made the care and feeding of its base practically the Eleventh Commandment. Conservatives in Congress have recently held Bush's feet to the fire over his handling of Katrina a first for the 108th/109th Congress and have also been disturbingly unwilling to simply roll over and play dead on the NSA wiretap issue. Bush is a dead man walking these days, and the Dubai port deal shows that he still doesn't quite get this. He better figure it out fast.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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AFTER NEOCONSERVATISM....Francis Fukuyama, longtime neoconservative apostle of the "End of History" and the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, has been weaning himself away from the post-9/11 version of neoconservatism ever since the publication of his widely read essay "The Neoconservative Moment" in the Summer 2004 issue of National Affairs. On Sunday he finished his journey to apostasy, writing in the New York Times: "Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support."

So what does Fukuyama think we need to do now?

Now that the neoconservative moment appears to have passed, the United States needs to reconceptualize its foreign policy in several fundamental ways. In the first instance, we need to demilitarize what we have been calling the global war on terrorism and shift to other types of policy instruments...."War" is the wrong metaphor for the broader struggle, since wars are fought at full intensity and have clear beginnings and endings.

....If we are serious about the good governance agenda, we have to shift our focus to the reform, reorganization and proper financing of those institutions of the United States government that actually promote democracy, development and the rule of law around the world, organizations like the State Department, U.S.A.I.D., the National Endowment for Democracy and the like....By definition, outsiders can't "impose" democracy on a country that doesn't want it; demand for democracy and reform must be domestic. Democracy promotion is therefore a long-term and opportunistic process that has to await the gradual ripening of political and economic conditions to be effective.

The State Department? Fukuyama really has turned on his former comrades, hasn't he? I guess you can take the boy out of the State Department, but you can't take the State Department out of the boy.

More seriously, I can't help but think that in some sense Fukuyama is the foreign policy version of Bruce Bartlett: a man who has decided that both the Bush administration and its cheerleaders don't take conservative principles seriously, and that even when they do they aren't willing to do the toughminded, real-world analysis it takes to get their policies right. Unlike, say, Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol, Fukuyama is at least trying to face up to the obvious failures of the war on terror over the past few years so that he can figure out a better way to proceed in the future. If that means admitting mistakes and risking an electoral backlash, so be it.

This is admirable in its own way, though I suspect the "electoral backlash" part of that equation will prevent him from finding many supporters among the current crop of conservatives running the country. Electoral backlash is precisely the thing they're most afraid of these days, which means that any serious analysis of where they went wrong is pretty much out of the question. Better to pretend that everything is working out perfectly and hope for the best.

But it's a start. Unlike domestic critics like Bartlett, who are unlikely to ever find any serious common ground with liberals, newly chastened foreign policy critics like Fukuyama could very well end up aligned in spirit if not always in fact with the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. After all, as Matt Yglesias points out, Fukuyama is pretty much endorsing "regular old liberal internationalism" whether he can bring himself to say so or not. The possibility of a truce is not completely farfetched.

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February 20, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

JANE MAYER ON TORTURE....Jane Mayer's New Yorker article about Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy, and his fight against abusive interrogation practices, is must reading. But I want to highlight the part of the story that hasn't really seen the light of day before. Near the middle of Mayer's account, we learn that after several months of internal fighting, Mora had warned William Haynes, the general counsel of the Department of Defense, that he planned to put his objections to the Pentagon's policies in writing:

By the end of the day, Haynes called Mora with good news. Rumsfeld was suspending his authorization of the disputed interrogation techniques. The Defense Secretary also was authorizing a special working group of a few dozen lawyers, from all branches of the armed services, including Mora, to develop new interrogation guidelines. Mora, elated, went home to his wife and son....

A week later, Mora learned that John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, had written an opinion arguing that Mora's concerns were unfounded. Yoo's opinion was forwarded to the working group:

In the spring of 2003, Mora waited for the final working-group report to emerge, planning to file a strong dissent. But the report never appeared. Mora assumed that the draft based on Yoos ideas had not been finalized and that the suspension of the harsh techniques authorized by Rumsfeld was still in effect.

....In June...Haynes wrote a letter [to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy] saying that the Pentagons policy was never to engage in torture, or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment just the sort of statement Mora had argued for. He wrote...that he saw Hayness letter as the happy culmination of the long debates in the Pentagon. He sent an appreciative note to Haynes, saying that he was glad to be on his team.

The next year, Mora learned that he'd been sandbagged:

On April 28, 2004, ten months later, the first pictures from Abu Ghraib became public. Mora said, I felt saddened and dismayed. Everything we had warned against in Guantnamo had happenedbut in a different setting. I was stunned.

He was further taken aback when he learned, while watching Senate hearings on Abu Ghraib on C-SPAN, that Rumsfeld had signed the working-group report the draft based on Yoos opinion a year earlier, without the knowledge of Mora or any other internal legal critics. Rumsfelds signature gave it the weight of a military order. This was the first Id heard of it!

....Without Moras knowledge, the Pentagon had pursued a secret detention policy. There was one version, enunciated in Hayness letter to Leahy, aimed at critics. And there was another, giving the operations officers legal indemnity to engage in cruel interrogations, and, when the Commander-in-Chief deemed it necessary, in torture. Legal critics within the Administration had been allowed to think that they were engaged in a meaningful process; but their deliberations appeared to have been largely an academic exercise, or, worse, a charade.

It's stunning. Not only did the Bush administration keep Congress and the American public in the dark, but they even deliberately lied to their own chief legal advisors. (The administration provided Mayer with an official excuse for this behavior, of course, but it's laughably thin.)

And the debate is still going on. Mora reports that "a few months ago" he sat in on a meeting to decide if it should be official Pentagon policy to treat detainees in accordance with Common Article Three of the Geneva conventions, which bars cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. Despite the fact that virtually everyone at the meeting supported the proposal, and despite the fact that U.S. law already forbids the violation of Common Article Three, the proposal was scuttled because of Bush administration opposition.

The pigheaded blindness on display here is nothing short of astonishing. Even those who don't have any moral objection to abusive treatment of prisoners ought to understand the tremendous damage done to our cause by refusing to abide by U.S. law, international treaties, or even a decent respect for world opinion. It's simply impossible to persuade the rest of the world that we're the good guys as long as we persist in plainly repugnant behavior.

As always, the problem with the Bush administration is not that they want to fight a war on terror. The problem is that they don't understand how to fight it, and because of that we're losing the broader and more important ideological war against terrorism and we're going to keep on losing it until they figure that out, something they show no signs of doing. That's the problem.

Kevin Drum 3:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (214)

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By: Kevin Drum

SPIN....Patrick Nielsen Hayden, with the appropriate disclaimer, tells us that Robert Charles Wilson is the greatest thing since sliced apple segments:

Spin represents one of those stunning leaps upward that sometimes happen to writers in mid-career, comparable to what Vernor Vinge did when he published his extraordinary A Fire Upon the Deep, save that Wilson was leaping up from an even higher level....Its one of the great SF novels of this generation.

This is perfect. I've been hugely negligent on the science fiction front lately, and it's time to rectify that. So I'll go out and buy Spin today. Unless, of course, I get lots of comments here telling me that Patrick is hopelessly compromised and Spin is massively overhyped. Does anyone plan to do that?

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ GETS A WARNING....America's ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, warned Iraqis today that U.S. patience with religious conflict is limited:

The ambassador said the US would not continue spending billions of dollars to build up security forces run by people with a sectarian agenda.

"American taxpayers expect their money to be spent properly. We are not going to invest the resources of the American people into forces run by people who are sectarian," he said at a rare news conference.

Mr Khalilzad bluntly warned politicians from Iraq's largest group, the Shia Muslims, that the key defence and interior ministries must be in the hands of people "who are non-sectarian, broadly acceptable and who are not tied to militias".

Khalilzad has to walk a tricky line in his public statements, but this strikes me as a useful stance: not too hot and not too cold. What's more, if it doesn't have the desired effect it gives us a prepackaged excuse to pull out later this year.

Kevin Drum 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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BARTLETT ON BUSH....Bruce Bartlett is not a happy camper these days. A Reagan-era conservative who thinks that George Bush has betrayed conservatism, he got fired a few months ago from his job at the conservative think tank NCPA because he decided to write a book explaining in detail just why he thinks Bush is a "pretend conservative."

Appropriately, the book is called Impostor, and I have a review essay about it in the current issue of the Monthly. Here's a passage from the review that a friend of mine said was his favorite:

I've long viewed George Bush as a temperamental conservative, the kind of guy you meet in a bar who slams down his drink and asks belligerently, You know what this country needs? and then proceeds to tell you. He's a conservative who is defined by a visceral loathing of '60s-era moral decay, not one who's read the collected works of Russell Kirk and Milton Friedman or who has been inhaling National Review since he was a teenager. Still, even if the guy in the bar is indeed one particular type of conservative, Bartlett makes the reasonable point that a conservative president needs to have at least a few vague guiding conservative principles, and those are hard to find in Bush. If you raise spending, increase tariffs, and create new entitlements without blinking an eye, even belligerence doesn't make you into a genuine conservative.

As it turns out, I think Bartlett is basically right about Bush though wrong about some of his other conclusions and I think the book has some lessons for liberals as well conservatives. But you'll have to read to the end of the review to find out what they are.

It's worth adding a note here, though. I email with Bruce regularly, and he's a nice guy and an honest analyst. More honest than me, in fact. But while I hope his book does well, it's worth keeping in mind that Bruce is disappointed in Bush because he's not conservative enough. He voted for John Schmitz in 1972 and went to work for Ron Paul in 1976 because Paul claimed he was to the right of Barry Goldwater. If he had his way, I imagine he'd pretty much dismantle every government program that I hold dear.

Just something to keep in mind. The fact that he's harshing on Bush is music to our ears, but he's still on the other side.

In the meantime, though, Bruce emails to say that he likes this article in the Dallas Observer that tells the tale of how he got fired from his job at NCPA. He thinks it tells the story pretty well.

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SHARIA IN BRITAIN?....The Telegraph reports on an ICM poll of British Muslims:

The most startling finding is the high level of support for applying sharia law in "predominantly Muslim" areas of Britain.

....Forty per cent of the British Muslims surveyed said they backed introducing sharia in parts of Britain, while 41 per cent opposed it.

It's easy to overreact to findings of polls, but you gotta admit that stuff like this is pretty disturbing. I expect that the results in the United States would be far different, but it would be interesting for someone to do a poll similar to ICM's and find out.

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February 19, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

"PERMANENT" "BASES" IN "IRAQ"....The United States is building at least four "super-bases" in Iraq, military compounds that are almost certainly designed to be huge permanent presences there. Tom Engelhardt points out the puzzling silence of the American press about this:

Unfortunately, there's a problem here. American reporters adhere to a simple rule: The words "permanent," "bases," and "Iraq" should never be placed in the same sentence, not even in the same paragraph; in fact, not even in the same news report. While a LexisNexis search of the last 90 days of press coverage of Iraq produced a number of examples of the use of those three words in the British press, the only U.S. examples that could be found occurred when 80% of Iraqis (obviously somewhat unhinged by their difficult lives) insisted in a poll that the United States might indeed desire to establish bases and remain permanently in their country; or when "no" or "not" was added to the mix via any American official denial.

And then there's the permanent U.S. embassy in Baghdad that's currently a-building:

The Bush administration is sinking between $600 million and $1 billion in construction funds into a new U.S. embassy. It is to arise in Baghdad's Green Zone on a plot of land along the Tigris River that is reportedly two-thirds the area of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The plans for this "embassy" are almost mythic in nature. A high-tech complex, it is to have "15ft blast walls and ground-to-air missiles" for protection as well as bunkers to guard against air attacks. It will, according to Chris Hughes, security correspondent for the British Daily Mirror, include "as many as 300 houses for consular and military officials" and a "large-scale barracks" for Marines. The "compound" will be a cluster of at least 21 buildings, assumedly nearly self-sufficient, including "a gym, swimming pool, barber and beauty shops, a food court and a commissary. Water, electricity and sewage treatment plants will all be independent from Baghdad's city utilities."

Read the whole thing.

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INTROVERTS REVISITED....Speaking of Jon Rauch, the Atlantic emails to inform me that the most popular piece ever posted on their website is Rauch's 2003 essay called "Caring for Your Introvert." Today, in an interview about the response to that essay, Rauch expands on the difference between introversion and shyness:

I marvel at Michael [Rauch's extroverted partner] who can always somehow turn the conversation right over effortlessly and keep it going even when what he says is not necessarily profound or interesting. What he comes up with is perfectly tuned to the sense and flow of the conversation. But it's not words that are particularly intended to convey ideas or mean things. It's words that socialize that simply continue the conversation. It's chit-chat. I have no gift for that. I have to think about what to say next, and sometimes I can't think fast enough and end up saying something stupid. Or sometimes I just come up dry and the conversation kind of ends for while until I can think of another topic.

This is why it's work for me. It takes positive cognition on my part. I think that's probably a core introvert characteristic that you and I have in common and which can probably be distinguished from shyness per se that small talk takes conscious effort and is very hard work. There's nothing small about small talk if you're an introvert.

That sounds about right to me.

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CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENCE....My old J-school friend Dave Lesher is the co-author of an op-ed in the LA Times today that notes the rise of independent voters in California over the past decade. The key statistic he cites is that the number of voters who "decline to state" a party identification has doubled since 1990 to 18% of the total electorate.

Is this a real trend? I'm skeptical for two reasons. The first is found a bit further down in Lesher's piece:

Polls show that about 60% of California independents favor tougher environmental regulations over economic growth, support a ban on offshore oil drilling and believe that global warming is a serious problem. Independent voters are also among the strongest supporters of such social innovations as medical marijuana use, assisted suicide for the terminally ill, the morning-after pill and hybrid automobiles. They back gay and lesbian marriage by a 20-point margin and a woman's right to abortion by 3 to 1.

At the same time, independents are largely responsible for keeping Proposition 13's anti-tax feelings alive. Most say they believe that government "wastes a lot of taxpayer money" and that Proposition 13 was a "good thing," according to the institute's surveys. Philosophically, independents split from Democrats by favoring smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes. Still, an institute poll in January found independents supporting more money for education and health programs as well as proposed ballot measures to generate funds for healthcare and preschool.

Whether they decline to state or not, this sounds like a pretty liberal group to me. The only real evidence of non-liberalism is the fact that they supposedly approve of "smaller government" in the abstract while at the same time supporting virtually every actual government program that pollsters care to name. This is fairly standard issue incoherence, though, not really evidence of true independence.

The second reason for skepticism is shown in the chart on the right, taken from a Jon Rauch column that I read a few days ago and have been mulling over since. Basically, by breaking down voting behavior and party ID, Rauch found that most self-described independents aren't very independent at all. Nationwide, about 40% of independents lean Democratic and about 30% lean Republican, and it turns out that the leaners vote every bit as as loyally as those who define themselves as "weak" party identifiers. "Independents" who lean Democratic vote for Democratic presidential candidates about 80% of the time, and independents who lean Republican vote for Republican presidential candidates about 85% of the time. That's not very independent.

Rauch's chart might not prove quite as much as he thinks, but it's still an instructive data point. When you combine it with the broad support for traditional Democratic issues that Lesher documents, I suspect that the growing number of California independents might indicate hipster attitude more than an underlying reality. "Pox on both your house" independence might be a trendy pose, but I'll bet that most of those independents are basically just Democrats in sheep's clothing.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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February 18, 2006
By: Jonathan Dworkin

IN THE PEDIATRICS HOSPITAL....Halabja has been at peace since American and Kurdish forces pushed a fundamentalist terrorist group out of the neighboring villages in 2003. People here tell me that some of the fundamentalists were Kurds, a thought that unsettles me, but they hasten to add that some were also Afghans and other foreigners fleeing the defeat of the Taliban. This recent history of the Shahrizur region, of which Halabja is a part, has been particularly contentious, because the Bush Administration claimed without much evidence that the terrorists received support from Baghdad. While they were no doubt convenient for the Baath Party, it's more likely that they received support from Iran, the country to which they eventually fled.

These arguments often create more smoke than fire, but the practical result is that many Kurds are still nervous about terrorism in the Shahrizur. The manager for Halabja Hospital, Dr. Ako, is concerned about being responsible for my secuirity. He mutters something about Guantanamo before stating that he wants me to commute back and forth to the town rather than staying overnight. I am not satisfied with this because I want to be on scene at all times to oversee the research. I begin to tell Dr. Ako that there's no chance he will end up in Guantanamo, but then I think of NSA taps, Abu Ghraib sex pyramids, and torture memos. We live in peculiar times, and I hold my tongue.

The new routine has me driving to Halabja a few times a week to solve problems while a group of deputized Kurdish nurses collect the data. To be honest this suits me well. In Sulaimania there are hot showers and clean drinking water. There is the bazaar with its endless alleys. And most of all there is the dar of the nchoshani minalan, or children's hospital. The dar is is my new home in Kurdistan, a communal living environment for all of the doctors working on the pediatric wards. I live with three men, all in their early 30s and equivalent in training to American residents. Some older doctors also live in the dar, though they tend to be transplants from more dangerous cities in Iraq. Housing is free; it comes with three meals a day and as many medical discussions as you want.

Rounding with the Kurdish doctors is an exotic experience for me. I am not headed towards a career in pediatrics, but it is obvious even to a neophyte that therapy here is a matter of improvisation, not protocol. One night a child comes in with diarrhea, dehydration, and rapid breathing. We give him IV fluids and base to slow his breathing, but three hours later his heart stops and he dies. We suspect he had a larger systemic infection, but without simple lab tests a leukocyte count, serum electrolytes the diagnosis is still unclear. Later I find out that some of these tests are available, but there is no lab technician working in the evening because the government has not approved the idea. This is a typical explanation for inertia in Kurdistan, and it never fails to make my jaw drop.

It is easy to look at the practice of medicine or any other sector in a developing country and point out the shortcomings. In fact this is a favorite pastime of some of the older, well-travelled physicians on the service. I find this has limited usefulness, and I make a point of staying beside the Kurdish residents even when a child dies of something unheard of in the United States. But some things are easier to correct than others, and as with many problems in Kurdistan, I sense that the centralization of authority is a part of the problem. Throughout the society young people are given little opportunity to pursue innovative ideas, and even simple reforms, like night staff, must be funneled through the political parties. Healthcare workers point every problem towards the Ministry of Health, a building occupied by pondorous people who are more slow and politically sensitive than outright corrupt.

A more decentralized system in Kurdistan would empower younger professionals to try new ideas, and it would end the political cover for bureaucrats that oppose them. In short, it would make everyone more accountable. Complex innovations like bone marrow transplant would take time, but simpler things like research, education reform, and diagnostic services would arrive quickly.

The Kurds are ready for this. Each year hundreds of doctors, engineers, and other professionals graduate from the growing universities, and they are more frustrated by the slow progress than any visitor possibly could be. The pediatric hospital in Sulaimania is an excellent place to see the new Kurdistan in all its strengths and flaws. And it's a good place to realize that the political parties, long the champions of the people, are becoming a barrier to their further development.


Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. Other posts in this series:

February 18: In The Pediatrics Hospital
February 5: Halabja
January 25: Kurds and Jews
January 18: At Home in the New Kurdistan
January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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By: Kevin Drum

OIL ROUNDUP....What with the United States being addicted to oil and all, I figure it's worthwhile to round up the latest oil news once in a while. Here's today's summary:

Nigeria: A Nigerian militant commander in the oil-rich southern Niger Delta has told the BBC his group is declaring "total war" on all foreign oil interests....It recently blew up two oil pipelines, held four foreign oil workers hostage and sabotaged two major oilfields.

Venezuela: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has warned he could cut off oil exports to the United States if Washington goes "over the line" in what he has said are attempts to destabilize his left-leaning government...."Many countries ask us for more oil and we have had to tell many countries we can't send them more" because Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, ships 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the United States, he told supporters at the presidential palace.

Iran: China is hastening to complete a deal worth as much as $100 billion that would allow a Chinese state-owned energy firm to take a leading role in developing a vast oil field in Iran....The speed with which China and Iran are moving to conclude their agreement and begin development appears to signal China's intent to limit the U.S.-led drive for sanctions against Iran to curb what Washington describes as Iran's rogue effort to develop nuclear weapons.

In related news, longtime peak oil pessimist Ken Deffeyes is now even more pessimistic. He claims that predictions of the date of peak oil are no longer necessary: we passed the peak in December 2005 and it's all downhill from here. I actually find his calculations fairly unconvincing, but a few years here or there aren't really that important anyway. Whatever the real date is, we're close enough to it that pretty much anyone with control over a million barrels of oil per day has a lot of leverage in world affairs. And there's a disturbingly large number of people who have control over that amount of oil.

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THE L WORD....Remember all those pro-U.S. stories the Pentagon was contracting with the Lincoln Group to write and then paying the Iraqi press to publish? Donald Rumsfeld was asked about that program last night and gave one of his trademark Mr. Rogers answers:

"When we heard about it, we said, 'Gee, that's not what we ought to be doing,' " Rumsfeld said Friday during a taped interview on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show.".... "They stopped doing that," he said.

The LA Times is too discreet to say it outright, but as the rest of the article makes clear, Rumsfeld was lying:

One person familiar with Lincoln Group's operations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an ongoing investigation, said the program in Iraq was still active as of a week ago.

Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said during a Dec. 16 news conference more than two weeks after the existence of the operation was revealed that it had not been shut down.

"We did a preliminary assessment shortly after the [news stories] came out, and we concluded that we were operating within our authorities and the appropriate legal procedures. And so we have not suspended any of the processes up to now," Casey said.

I'm sure Rumsfeld will get a stern talking to from his boss over this. After all, we can't have administration officials misleading the American public, can we?

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February 17, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

FISA FLIP FLOP....Today's revealing quote of the day comes from Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. After switching course earlier this afternoon and deciding that he wants full briefings on the NSA's domestic spying program after all, he said this:

"I think it's the function and the oversight responsibility of the committee," he said, adding, "That might sound strange coming from me."

Yes, it does sound a bit strange coming from the Bush administration's biggest water carrier on the Hill. But it's welcome nonetheless. Apparently Roberts now feels not only that his committee should be briefed, but that the program itself should be overseen by the FISA court.

If Roberts follows up on this, then good for him. Better late than never.

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TARGET PRACTICE....I think that Shotgungate has pretty much run its course, but I still have to recommend this video to you. It features kick boxing dummies, dead chickens, and watermelons all being filled with with #7.5 birdshot from various distances. The source is, um, not entirely unimpeachable, but it's still fun for the whole family.

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PSEUDO-SPORTS....I have a huge rant about all those X-Games pseudo-sports at the Winter Olympics that's been roiling around in my head for a while and could spill out onto the blog at any moment. You know the ones I'm talking about: moguls, halfpipe, snowboardcross, freestyle skiing, and so forth.

I'll spare you the full rant, but the short version is: stupid faux urban-chic-meets-Nanook uniforms, stupid faux "I'm just here to have fun" hipster attitude, stupid faux "progressive" drivel from the announcers, and stupid real iPods stuck in their ears even during competition. I figure that if the competitors themselves don't take their sport seriously enough to care about winning it, then there's no reason for me to take it seriously enough to watch it.

With that as background, then, this news actually made me happy. Serves her right.

I know this makes me a bad person, but that's the way it goes sometimes. You may now all commence hating me in comments.

UPDATE: In comments, MK points out that the "I'm just here to have fun" attitude doesn't actually seem very faux at all. That's a fair point. But if the competitors don't really care about winning or even if they're just pretending they don't care about winning why should I care whether they win?

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MORE ALGEBRA....Jeanne weighs in on the great algebra debate:

There are lots of skills and talents I lack, and at this point in my life if God were to offer me just one of the ones I don't have, I think I'd take the ability to sing or play an instrument over the ability to do math. I've listened to great singers and ached for something other than a thin, off-key whisper to come out of my throat. Just ached for it.

In my entire life, I've never felt that way about algebra.

Well, no, I don't suppose many people do. I suspect that even most mathophiles think of algebra as sort of the 1-ton pickup truck of mathematics handy for getting things done around the house, but hardly something to feel sentimental about.

On the other hand, you have to understand algebra in order to learn calculus, and calculus is achingly beautiful. Given the way my life has turned out, knowing calculus does me no practical good at all, but it's one of the great inventions of mankind and certainly one of our most elegant and breathtaking. My life would be less rich if I didn't know it.

But then again, my life would be less rich if I had to jettison nearly any of the knowledge I've accumulated so far and most of it, like algebra, isn't really of very much practical use to me. If I could trade calculus for a working knowledge of French, I suppose I might take the deal. But I'd never be sure if I'd made the right decision.

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CAREFUL ENGAGEMENT ON THE MARCH....Shibley Telhami writes in the Washington Post today that in a democratic Middle East, extreme Islamist parties are going to win power whether we like it or not:

Given this, skepticism about the real aims of these groups should be balanced by openness to the possibility that their aims once they are in power could differ from their aims as opposition groups. This requires partial engagement, patience, and a willingness to allow such new governments space and time to put their goals to the test of reality. Hamas, in fact, could provide a place for testing whether careful engagement leads to moderation.

If we are not willing to engage, there is only one alternative: to rethink the policy of accelerated electoral democracy and focus on a more incremental approach of institutional and economic reform of existing governments. There is no realistic third party that's likely to emerge anytime soon.

That's probably good advice, especially given Telhami's subsequent acknowledgement that nobody in the Middle East actually believes we're serious about democracy anyway. And after all, why should they? Hamas wins an election and we immediately start talking with Israel about how to undermine them. Saudi Arabia's theocracy is treated with kid gloves because they have lots of oil, and Pakistan's military dictatorship is left alone because they (sort of) help us out against al-Qaeda. Egypt holds a pretend election and gets nothing more than a mild verbal rebuke. The Kurds in Iraq would like nothing more than a chance at self-determination, but that's a little too much democracy for our taste.

All of this is excusable. The Middle East is not a place that lends itself to simplistic solutions. But "democracy is on the march" is not the only way to promote democracy, especially in a region where U.S. support is almost a sure fire way to lose an election. Telhami's "careful engagement" may not be a very punchy slogan, but in the long run, it's more likely to work.

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THE ALGEBRA HATERS CLUB....Just for the record, I think that a lot of people are missing the point of Richard Cohen's anti-algebra screed in today's Washington Post. To be sure, I'll grant that this sentence about algebra's value is beyond idiotic:

It has its uses, I suppose, and I think it should be available for people who want to take it.

Gee, thanks, Richard! That's mighty open-minded of you! But setting this silliness aside, Cohen's serious point isn't really whether algebra is useful or not, it's whether it should be required to graduate from high school. That is, if you find yourself completely unable to fathom algebra, should you be condemned to spend the rest of your life as a high school dropout? I don't really have an opinion about this, but it's a serious question.

On the other hand, Cohen says he can't do percentages either, and if that's the case then maybe he should go back to high school. At the very least, he should be as ashamed of this as he apparently is of his nameless high school friend who didn't know where the Sahara Desert was. I'd venture to guess that calculating percentages is a whole lot more useful in modern adult life than knowing the location of the world's great deserts.

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IN THE DARK....Larry Franklin, a former Department of Defense analyst, recently pleaded guilty to leaking classified information and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. That's a stiff sentence and an unusual one but since Franklin worked for the Pentagon at the time of the leak it's at least easy to understand.

What's harder to understand is the case against Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, the two former AIPAC lobbyists who received Franklin's leaks. It's true that they passed along some of the information they received to the Israeli embassy, but the government is deliberately not including that as part of the charges against them. Here is Fred Kaplan on the case against Rosen and Weissman:

Neither works for the U.S. government. Neither has a security clearance. (Rosen, a former official, used to have one, but it expired 20 years ago; the prosecutors claim that its terms are still in effect.) If Rosen and Weissman were accused of being Israeli spies, or if either they or AIPAC were labeled foreign agents, that would be one thing. But the indictment makes no such accusation....They're charged with giving classified information not to foreign governments or spies but rather "to persons not entitled to receive it."

This is what journalists do routinely every day. They receive information from insiders, write it up in a story, send it to editors, who publish it in newspapers, magazines, wire services, or on Web sites, all of which are seen by readers who have not been officially authorized to view that classified material.

....If [Rosen and Weissman] are convicted under this legal theory, the Washington Post's Walter Pincus or The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh could be next.

Is Kaplan overreacting? Maybe not. Here is Walter Pincus himself in the Washington Post today:

A lawyer familiar with the AIPAC case said administration officials "want this case as a precedent so they can have it in their arsenal" and added: "This as a weapon that can be turned against the media."

What's more, the same story reports that Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is considering legislation that would make it easier to prosecute leaks legislation that even John Ashcroft thought went too far. If Roberts is serious, the press could be in real trouble when it reports on things like the CIA's secret prisons or the NSA's domestic spying program.

For a more detailed look at the Franklin case and its implications for reporters who print leaked information, check out this piece by Eli Lake in the New Republic last year. As he says, "At a time when a growing amount of information is being classified, the prosecution of Rosen and Weissman threatens to have a chilling effect not on the ability of foreign agents to influence U.S. policy, but on the ability of the American public to understand it." Amen.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WORST OF THE WORST?....Are the detainees at Guantanamo Bay really the "worst of the worst"? Some surely are, but for the most part we really don't know. And the reason we don't know is that we know almost nothing about most of the detainees in the first place.

Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall University has co-authored a study of 517 reviews written by the government for use at Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings, and the results of the study mirror the findings of Corine Hegland's recent investigation for National Journal. The full report is here, and as the chart on the right shows, one of the study's findings is that only 11% of the Guantanamo prisoners were captured on the battlefield by coalition forces. A full two-thirds of them were rounded up in Pakistan and turned over to the United States, likely in response to flyers like this distributed by the United States:

Get wealth and power beyond your dreams....You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al-Qaida and Taliban murders. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.

The Seton Hall study also concludes that fewer than half of the Guantanamo detainees are accused of any hostile action against the United States, and that evidence of association with al-Qaeda or the Taliban is often laughably weak. An awful lot of these prisoners have simply been turned in for reward money or else done nothing worse than be conscripted into low-level positions in the Taliban.

Figuring out what to do with prisoners captured in Afghanistan presents a real problem, and civilian style courtroom trials are simply not in the cards for many of these people. At the same time, the limbo we've placed them in is simply not something that Americans should accept, especially for the half or more of the prisoners who are known to be either innocent or essentially harmless.

Even critics of the administration can probably agree that a certain amount of confusion over the status of the Guantanamo detainees might have been excusable for the first year or so. But four years? It's long past time to do the right thing and give these men fair hearings, followed by release for those who have never been near a battlefield and have never fought against the United States.

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February 16, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING UPDATE....Yet more bad news on the global warming front:

Greenland's glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fast as previously believed, the result of a warming trend that renders obsolete predictions of how quickly the Earth's oceans will rise over the next century, scientists said yesterday.

...."The implications are global," said Julian Dowdeswell, a glacier expert at the University of Cambridge in England who reviewed the new paper for Science. "We are not talking about walking along the sea front on a nice summer day, we are talking of the worst storm settings, the biggest storm surges...you are upping the probability major storms will take place."

I realize that Al Gore believes in global warming, and therefore all good conservatives believe global warming doesn't exist. But it's time to grow up and take notice that all the global warming news for the past few years has been bad. Not only is it happening, but every recent report I've seen indicates that it's happening faster and with more dire results than we've previously believed. It's really beyond belief that so many people are still burying their heads in the sand over this.

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NSA UPDATE....A federal judge has ordered the Bush administration to repond within 20 days to a request for documents related to the NSA's domestic spying program:

Records sought by the [Electronic Privacy Information Center] include an audit of the program, a checklist guide used to determine whether an individuals phone or e-mail messages could be monitored, documents showing how information gleaned through eavesdropping had been used, and other legal opinions about the program.

Of course, the Department of Justice is likely to turn down the request, and then the case will be appealed. But it's still interesting news. I'd like to see that famous 48-point checklist myself.

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By: Kevin Drum

TEFLON....Worried about getting cancer from omelettes cooked in your Teflon pan? As it happens, the newly designated "likely carcinogen" PFOA isn't found in Teflon, it's only used to make Teflon, so there's not really anything new to worry about unless you work in a Dupont factory. Just don't heat your Teflon pans to 500 degrees if your canaries are around.

But if you're looking for an alternative anyway, try a Scanpan skillet. They cost a fair amount, but the titanium surface is terrific: it heats evenly, it doesn't stick, and you can scrub it out with a scouring pad if you need to without damaging the surface. The space age explanation is here. I bought one a couple of years ago and it's the best pan I've ever owned. Plus, it's built like a tank and will probably last forever.

ADDED BONUS: Scanpan is a Danish company, so buying one helps our Danish friends who are being boycotted for allowing newspapers to print offensive cartoons. You can make tasty omelettes and strike a blow for free speech!

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SELLING HEALTHCARE....Steve Benen highlights this passage from a speech on healthcare that George Bush gave on Wednesday. He was trying to explain why Health Savings Accounts are supposedly better than traditional healthcare plans:

You show up, you got a traditional plan, you got your down payment, you pay a little co-pay, but you have no idea what the cost is. Somebody else pays it for you. And so there's no reason at all to kind of worry about price. If somebody else is paying the bill, you just kind of hey, it seems like a pretty good deal.

....For many routine medical needs, HSAs mean you can shop around until you get the best treatment for the best price. In other words, it's your money; you're responsible for routine medical expenses....And so you you talk to your doctor, you say, can't we find this drug at a little cheaper cost? Or you go to a specialist, maybe we can do this a little better old Joe does it for X, I'm going why don't you try it for Y?

I met up with the New Republic's Jon Cohn a couple of weeks ago while he was in town doing research for his forthcoming book on the American healthcare system, and both of us were baffled by the same thing that baffles Steve: what makes Bush think that this approach to healthcare is a political winner? Forget the substantive arguments against Health Savings Accounts and "consumer directed" healthcare. Instead, just look at how this sells.

Current system (for those with insurance): When you get sick you go to the doctor. When your kids get sick, they go to the doctor. You don't have to quibble over costs or spend time second guessing your doctor over whether a test he recommends is really necessary. As Bush himself says, it seems like a pretty good deal.

Now here's what Bush is trying to sell: When you get sick, you should spend a lot of time shopping around for doctors to find one you can afford. You should put off tests that he recommends if they're expensive. You should haggle over the cost of drugs as if you were buying a used car. And when you get home you should worry about whether you made the right decision or not.

For now, forget about the substantive arguments in this debate. Pay no attention to Bush's obvious lies that national healthcare plans in other countries routinely create long waiting times and low quality of care. Instead just ask yourself: Does Bush's healthcare vision shopping around, haggling over costs, second guessing your doctor, worrying over your decisions sound like a winner? Who does he think is going to be excited by this?

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SEMI-FREE SPEECH....Hell's bells. I thought that Tony Blair's absurd effort to make "glorifying terrorism" a criminal offense had been beaten back, but obviously I wasn't paying attention. It passed on Wednesday 327-279:

A triumphant Mr Blair claimed the government had won the argument. He said: "The new law will mean that if people are going to start celebrating acts of terrorism or condoning people who engage in terrorism, they will be prosecuted, and if they do not come from this country, they should not be in this country. We have free speech in this country, but you cannot abuse it."

Blair's belief that of course he supports free speech, "but you cannot abuse it," sounds rather too close for comfort to the "defenses" of free speech coming out of the Middle East lately, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, to the undoubted delight of anti-cartoon activists worldwide, the Austrian government is getting ready to prosecute David Irving for holocaust denial. Great. Here's a tip: It's a little hard to defend the notion that even offensive speech should be free when Western governments don't really seem to believe it themselves.

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HOUSING BUBBLE WATCH....The LA Times reports that the housing bubble in Southern California is all but over:

Six months of gains in Southern California's median home price were wiped out in January while sales activity dropped sharply, further signs that the region's once-hot real estate market continues to lose steam.

The statistics, released Wednesday by DataQuick Information Systems, a La Jolla-based real estate research firm, suggest that the market is making a "soft landing" of flattening prices and fewer sales after sizzling gains during the six-year boom, analysts said.

A soft landing is devoutly to be hoped for, and that's certainly the message I got last week when I started playing around with the intriguing new site Zillow.com, which allows you to check the approximate value of any house in the country. Naturally, I immediately used Zillow to check the value of my own house and then the houses of all my friends, and the results pretty much all looked like the chart on the right: a steep rise, and then flat for the past 4-5 months.

Looking at broader measures (zip codes, cities), I also saw some occasional dips, but for the most part flatness. A year from now I guess we'll know if that really did portend a "soft landing" or if it was just the calm before the storm.

Zillow.com, by the way, like so many other things on the web, is either fascinating or frightening, depending on your temperament. Just type in your address and you get a satellite picture of your neighborhood showing the approximate value of your house and the approximate value of all your neighbors' houses as well. Click on "Details" and you can find out what they paid for their house, how big their house is, and so forth. And they can do the same to you. Have fun!

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VIVE LA FRANCE!....France says there's no question that Iran is trying to build an atomic bomb:

France's foreign minister said Thursday that Iran's nuclear program was a cover for clandestine military activity, in an unusually direct attack on Tehran for a European diplomat.

...."No civilian nuclear program can explain the Iranian nuclear program. It is a clandestine military nuclear program," [Foreign Minister Philippe] Douste-Blazy said on France-2 television. "The international community has sent a very firm message in telling the Iranians to return to reason and suspend all nuclear activity and the enrichment and conversion of uranium, but they aren't listening to us."

Does this mean France is no longer part of the Axis of Weasels? A member in good standing of New Europe? A country whose intelligence services have always been top tier and whose word can hardly be doubted?

Just wondering.

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February 15, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

STALKING THE FED....New Fed chairman Ben Bernanke testified before Congress today, and Max Sawicky is not happy that he seemingly cares only about inflation to the exclusion of everything else:

Wages were hardly mentioned. (Rep. Harold Ford, Democratic champion, at one point referred to wages being "under control." Whew! Thank god for that.) We are told that cost pressures are worsening and monetary tightening is on the agenda. This is code for suppressing possible wage gains and preventing dangerously low levels of unemployment (sic). Rep. Ford will be happy, but you will not.

It's worth noting, as Max does in passing, that inflation is not the only thing the Fed is supposed to be concerned about although an awful lot of reporters seem to believe this. Rather, its statutory mission is to conduct monetary policy "in pursuit of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates." Maximum employment, of course, would have the happy effect of raising median wages, which for most of us would be a good thing indeed. Now we just need to get the Fed to agree.

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CHENEY SPEAKS....Dick Cheney's interview a few minutes ago with Brit Hume was, like the rest of this whole story, bizarre.

First, Cheney acknowledged that the White House wanted him to issue a statement Saturday night, but he refused. "That was my call, all the way," he said. Translation: he doesn't take guidance from the White House. They take guidance from him.

Second, he said that he had held up issuing a statement because he wanted to make sure Harry Whittington was all right before saying anything. I don't even know what to make of this. Is he suggesting that his story would have been different if Whittington's injuries had been more serious? That the White House never issues statements about breaking news until it knows how things are going to turn out? Or what?

Finally, Hume suggested that since this was obviously a national story, Cheney should have informed the national press and gotten the word out sooner. Cheney's reply: "It isn't easy to do that. Are they going to take my word for what happened?"

Seriously? Cheney's story is that his own credibility is so poor that a statement from him would have been worthless? Is he really going to stick to that as his explanation?

And did Cheney ever speak with George Bush about this? Hume never asked. That's some serious journalism, Brit.

UPDATE: Apparently Hume did ask Cheney whether he had spoken to Bush. It's not part of the transcript on the Fox News site, but the White House has a full transcript:

Q Had you discussed this with colleagues in the White House, with the President, and so on?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I did not. The White House was notified, but I did not discuss it directly, myself. I talked to Andy Card, I guess it was Sunday morning.

....Q And what about when did you first when, if ever, have you discussed it with the President?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I talked to him about it yesterday, or Monday first on Monday, and then on Tuesday, too.

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DOG BITES MAN, PART CCLXI....So how are moderate Republicans doing these days? Still planning to show some spine by investigating the NSA's domestic spying program? If you guessed that they'd eventually cave in to pressure from the White House, you guessed right:

Congress appeared ready to launch an investigation into the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program last week, but an all-out White House lobbying campaign has dramatically slowed the effort and may kill it.

...."It's been a full-court press," said a top Senate Republican aide who asked to speak only on background as did several others for this story because of the classified nature of the intelligence committees' work.

Everyone who is surprised by this turn of affairs please raise your hand.

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CONSPIRACY THEORY BLOGGING....Just to make sure we're straight on this, what is the consensus conspiracy theory about what really happened on Cheney's hunting trip? It seems to be approximately this:

Cheney's party had been drinking. Maybe Jack Daniels, maybe a few beers. So Cheney has a bit of a buzz, it's near sunset, and Harry Whittington has dropped behind the main hunting party. Suddenly, a covey of quail flushes and Cheney wheels around to track them. Unfortunately, Whittington comes into his line of fire, no more than 30 feet away by the looks of his subsequent injuries, but the sun is in Cheney's eyes and his reflexes are dulled from alcohol, so he pulls the trigger anyway.

An interview with a sheriff or anyone else is considered imprudent at that point, so the sheriff is told to come by the next morning after Cheney has sobered up. Karl Rove decides that silence from the White House is a good idea too and the president goes along. Scott McClellan isn't even informed. That's the way Dick wants it, so that's the way it's going to play.

Unfortunately, there are several witnesses to the shooting, including Whittington, and there's no telling what they're going to say. So Cheney decides to hide. If he doesn't answer questions, after all, he can't be caught in a lie. Once everyone has gone on record and the White House is sure that Whittington isn't going to contradict the VP's story, Cheney will take questions from the press.

Is that about it? Have I missed anything? Feel free to chime in.

In the meantime, read this column from Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell, wondering just who's in charge at the White House these days. Was Bush kept out of the loop, or was he informed about what happened on Saturday night (as the White House says) and then just tamely went along with Cheney's plan? Are we seriously supposed to believe that Bush thought it was good idea to lay low and not tell anyone about the incident even though Cheney supposedly did nothing wrong?

What's wrong with this picture?

UPDATE: Here's the latest from National Review's Byron York:

I just watched the news conference by Harry Whittington's medical team. On three occasions, they refused to comment on how many shotgun pellets are in Whittington's body and on the composition steel? lead? of those pellets. Perhaps they don't know the answers. But that's not what they said; they said they could not comment on those particular questions while, at the same time, they answered many others.

Curiouser and curiouser.

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POMBO-PALOOZA, PART 2....Let's take a moment to switch gears from one Republican's unfortunate brush with the great outdoors to another's. Today's featured GOP outdoorsman, recently highlighted on our list of "little Tom DeLays," is congressman Richard Pombo, who decided to take a tour of America's national parks back in 2003. Was this because Pombo, who chairs the House Resources Committee, is a latter day John Muir? Not quite. As the Wall Street Journal describes it, his tour was more likely a bit of prep work for his subsequent proposal to sell off "15 national parks, monuments, preserves and historical sites, along with naming rights for visitors' centers and hiking trails, to corporate bidders."

Charming, no? But whether for good or ill, suspicious readers might be wondering if this was really a research trip at all. After all, it happened in August 2003, Pombo rented an RV for his inspection tour, and he took his family along. Sounds rather vacation-like, doesn't it? Especially since Pombo himself described it as a vacation at the time. But Pombo is having none of it:

Pombo defended the August 2003 trip on Thursday, saying it was appropriate to charge the $4,935 two-week rental of an RV to the government because of his committee's role in overseeing the nation's parks and public lands.

....Pombo insisted that he spent virtually all day talking to the park superintendents and other officials, while his wife and children enjoyed the parks with the other visitors.

"Virtually all day"? Really? And what do the park officials themselves have to say about that? The LA Times reports:

Officials at two of the national parks Pombo said he visited Joshua Tree in California and Badlands in South Dakota said the congressman never met with them.

"We had set up camping for him and gone to a lot of work and then he did not show," Pam Livermont, secretary for the park superintendent at Badlands National Park, said Tuesday. "He did not alert any personnel that he wasn't coming, and we never heard another word from him. We were disappointed."

The Tracy Press, Pombo's hometown newspaper, reported that officials at Joshua Tree did not recall him visiting there either.

Care to take a second crack at explaining this trip, congressman?

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FISHY....Like Belle Waring, I don't generally have much patience with the conspiracy theory school of political blogging and unlike Belle, I think this usually stands me in good stead. Despite that, my instinct lines up with Belle's when it comes to Shotgungate: "Something is fishy in this whole Cheney story." Quite so. Nobody, not even Dick Cheney, could act so phenomenonally stupid unless he had something to hide. Just saying.

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DIGGING INTO GUANTANAMO....I'm quite late getting to last week's National Journal cover story about the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, but thanks to Jon Henke at QandO I've now figured out how many separate articles there are (four) and how they relate to each other. Taken together, they tell a chilling story.

The basic message from these four pieces is that the evidence against an awful lot of the Guantanamo prisoners isn't just weak, it's known to be flatly false. For example, here's an account of Mohammed al-Tumani, a prisoner who was lucky enough to be assigned a "personal representative" who discovered that his primary accuser was a busy man indeed:

Tumani's enterprising representative looked at the classified evidence against the Syrian youth and found that just one man the aforementioned accuser had placed Tumani at the terrorist training camp. And he had placed Tumani there three months before the teenager had even entered Afghanistan. The curious U.S. officer pulled the classified file of the accuser, saw that he had accused 60 men, and, suddenly skeptical, pulled the files of every detainee the accuser had placed at the one training camp. None of the men had been in Afghanistan at the time the accuser said he saw them at the camp.

The tribunal declared Tumani an enemy combatant anyway.

There's more like this, and the story it tells is that the problem at Guantanamo isn't just that it's difficult separating fact from fiction when prisoners have been captured in the heat of battle and the witnesses against them are thousands of miles away and untrustworthy to boot. That's a genuine problem, and not one that's easily resolved.

Rather, in too many cases, it turns out the Pentagon is relying on blatantly fabricated evidence against many of the Guantanamo prisoners, and it's doing so even though it knows the evidence against them is blatantly fabricated.

And it gets worse. After all, if the Guantanamo prisoners had been captured on the battlefield, that would constitute prima facie evidence that they were enemy combatants even if the rest of the evidence against them was worthless or trumped up. But they weren't:

The largest single group at Guantanamo Bay today consists of men caught in indiscriminate sweeps for Arabs in Pakistan. Once arrested, these men passed through several captors before being given to the U.S. military. Some of the men say they were arrested after asking for help getting to their embassies; a few say the Pakistanis asked them for bribes to avoid being turned over to America.

...."The one thing we were never clear of was where they came from," [Michael] Scheuer said of the Guantanamo detainees. "DOD picked them up somewhere." When National Journal told Scheuer that the largest group came from Pakistani custody, he chuckled. "Then they were probably people the Pakistanis thought were dangerous to Pakistan," he said. "We absolutely got the wrong people."

That's Michael Scheuer speaking, the man who headed the CIA's bin Laden unit through 1999 and worked for the agency up through 2004.

To summarize then: According to the National Journal's research, upwards of half of all prisoners at Guantanamo weren't captured on the battlefield. Rather, they came into our custody by way of third parties "who had their own motivations for turning people in, including paybacks and payoffs." Many perhaps most of the men rounded up in these sweeps have no connection to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and the evidence against them is often weak, sometimes nonexistent, and all too frequently known to be fabricated. And yet they remain in prison.

Corine Hegland wrote the main package of stories for the Journal. It consists of three separate pieces:

In addition, Stuart Taylor summarizes some of the evidence in Hegland's three stories in an accompanying column. Jon Henke has Taylor's column here and Dale Franks provides more information and some background detail here. It's all worth reading.

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IN THE BUNKER....After taking stock of the Bush administration's record over the past few months, David Ignatius is able to come to only one conclusion:

Bush and Cheney are in the bunker. That's the only way I can make sense of their actions. They are steaming in a broth of daily intelligence reports that highlight the grim terrorist threats facing America. They have sworn blood oaths that they will defend the United States from its adversaries no matter what. They have blown past the usual rules and restraints into territory where few presidents have ventured a region where the president conducts warrantless wiretaps against Americans in violation of a federal statute, where he authorizes harsh interrogation methods that amount to torture.

When critics question the legality of the administration's actions, Bush and Cheney assert the commander in chief's power under Article II of the Constitution. When Congress passes a law forbidding torture, the White House appends a signing statement insisting that Article II the power of the commander in chief trumps everything else. When the administration's Republican friends suggest amending the wiretapping law to make its program legal, the administration refuses. Let's say it plainly: This is the arrogance of power, and it has gone too far in the Bush White House.

It's downright Nixonian, and even in the mainstream media more and more people are starting to notice.

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February 14, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

MORE ABU GHRAIB PICTURES....The Australian program Dateline claims to have 60 previously unpublished photos from Abu Ghraib:

Some of the photos are similar to those published in 2004, others are different. They include photographs of six corpses, although the circumstances of their deaths are not clear. There are also pictures of what appear to be burns and wounds from shotgun pellets.

Dateline airs on Wednesday evening in Australia, which is early Wednesday morning on the U.S. East Coast. Their website has one new picture up now, and presumably they will post more of them after the show airs. They say that the photos are among those that were shown privately to members of Congress shortly after the original Abu Ghraib story broke.

UPDATE: The Sydney Morning Herald has 15 of the 60 pictures here.

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NEGOTIATING WITH TERRORISTS....Most everyone agrees that you don't negotiate with terrorists or accede to their demands in order to win the release of a hostage. But did the United States really halt the release of prisoners it was already planning to release just so no one would think we were releasing them because terrorists had demanded it? Jeanne has the story.

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DARTH CHENEY....From Byron York over at NRO:

So far, the vice president seems determined not to make any public statement about the hunting accident. Spokeswoman McBride points out that Cheney has a previously-scheduled speaking engagement this Friday, at the Wyoming state legislature. It seems likely that he would at least mention it then. But as far as today, tomorrow, or Thursday goes, there seems, at the moment at least, to be no plan to have Cheney say anything.

This is just flat out insane. What on earth is he thinking?

There's still nothing from the man himself, but a few minutes ago the VP's office finally issued a terse and bureaucratic statement saying that Cheney had been passed a note about Harry Whittington's post-shooting heart attack and "stood ready to assist." The statement ends with a pro forma declaration that "The Vice President said that his thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his family."

This is now way beyond bizarre. Does the White House think that reinforcing the VP's "Darth Cheney" image is helpful in some way? That it's better if the world thinks he's callous and insensitive? Or what?

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MORE ON THE SUNDAY TALK SHOWS....Last night I suggested that the paucity of anti-war guests on the Sunday gabfests was largely a function of talk show bookers lazily speed-dialing the same guests week in and week out regardless of what's going on in the world. But a friend of mine who's in the talk show biz emails to say that this is only part of the answer:

Take it from someone who works in television: it's lazy bookers combined with the need for ratings. It is still a TV show. The networks are not performing a public service. Face the Nation competes with Meet the Press which competes with This Week which competes with Fox Sunday. I'm quite sure when Russert has McCain on and ABC goes with someone like Dick Durbin everyone on the ABC staff understands that they didn't win the booking war, and as a result they're going to rate lower when the numbers come back early in the week.

It's got nothing to do with who is for the war and who is against it, or who is a Democrat and who is a Republican. It's about getting the biggest name guest you can get depending on what the news is that week. (Example: If Colin Powell's gave his speech to the UN Security Council that week, you want Colin Powell. Then the rest of the shows have to settle for people talking about Colin Powell.) Or if there isn't some major news to discuss with the person who made it, it's about getting McCain because people like watching McCain and the press corps likes talking to him. He gives good TV.

In a followup email he notes acerbically that "The bullpen is empty on our side. After you go through Biden and Schumer and Emmanuel, you get to uninspiring people like Pelosi and Durbin, etc. That's your problem, fellas. Deal with that."

I don't think this is the whole story Matt Yglesias takes a fair shot at filling in some of the missing pieces here but it's a big piece of it. The Sunday shows may have done a poor job of representing the full range of views to their audience, but they are what they are and that's not going to change except at the margins. So while holding them to account is surely the Lord's work, we also need to figure out how to deal with the media as it is, warts and all. If the bullpen really is empty on our side, we need to start filling it.

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FAMILY VALUES....Why did George Bush's domestic policy czar, Claude Allen, resign last week? Was it really to spend more time with his family?

Allen, a former top aide to Jesse Helms and a darling of the evangelical right, left shortly after the Pentagon announced that it had loosened its policy on religious expression at the service academies. Henceforth superior officers will be allowed to proselytize as long as it's clear that "the discussions are personal, not official" good news! but the new rules also require prayers at official ceremonies to be "nondenominational, inclusive prayer or a moment of silence."

This was good enough for James Dobson, but according to the Washington Times it wasn't good enough for Allen:

In a Jan. 22 conversation with Rep. Walter B. Jones reported in The Washington Times, Mr. Allen promised the North Carolina Republican that President Bush would pressure Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld into allowing military chaplains to be more explicit about their faith.

According to a military source, Mr. Allen resigned to protest the White House's refusal to lean on the Pentagon about the issue.

So the theocon base of the Republican party helps him get reelected, and George Bush repays them by stabbing them in the back yet again? Tsk tsk. When will they learn?

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MARTYR OR FOP?....So what's going on at the CIA these days? Here's the London Times on the firing of Robert Grenier, the CIA's chief counterterrorism guy:

The CIAs top counter-terrorism official was fired last week because he opposed detaining Al-Qaeda suspects in secret prisons abroad, sending them to other countries for interrogation and using forms of torture such as water boarding, intelligence sources have claimed.

....Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of counter-terrorism at the agency, said: It is not that Grenier wasnt aggressive enough, it is that he wasnt with the programme. He expressed misgivings about the secret prisons in Europe and the rendition of terrorists.

Grenier also opposed excessive interrogation, such as strapping suspects to boards and dunking them in water, according to Cannistraro.

Over at TPMCafe, here is Larry Johnson on the same subject:

Some outside the Agency see this as part of a political vendetta. Folks I've communicated with who are knowledgeable and have dealt with him say this is good news.

Before becoming the Chief of CTC, Robert Grenier (aka Bob) had been the CIA Chief in Islamabad during and after 9-11 . When the CIA started fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in October of 2001, Grenier was one of the foot draggers. I'm told he took the Pakistani position on everything and was at constant odds with the Chiefs of the Counter Terrorism Center (Cofer Black and Hank Crumpton) on key issues of the war. US military personnel who worked with Grenier during his time in Pakistan remarked that he was always a dapper dresser and worked banker's hours. They joked that he was well rested during the war. His men, however, were in the office around the clock. Case officers I know and respect viewed him as personally ambitious and not a stand up guy. He would not take a spear in the chest for anyone.

So: fired for refusing to torture suspects with enough relish, or fired for being an indolent fop? Beats me, but I thought the competing storylines here were interesting. Stay tuned to see if Grenier says anything in his own defense.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

MODERATE?....From Marc Lynch:

I haven't seen this reported anywhere in English (nothing shows up on Google News), but Al-Arabiya is featuring a report on a new petition issued by 41 leading Islamist personalities on February 13 calling for a resolution of the cartoons controversy through the passage of an international law criminalizing insults against Prophets (Mohammed, Jesus, and Moses are the ones named).

I gather from Marc's post that in the Middle East this petition is basically considered a "moderate" one because it encourages conciliation and refuses to endorse violence. Count me as skeptical though. Anyone who thinks I should be tossed in jail for making fun of Jesus sure doesn't sound very moderate to me.

Kevin Drum 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (122)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE USUAL SUSPECTS....The full Media Matters report on the composition of Sunday talk shows should be available on their site before I wake up on Tuesday, but in the meantime I thought I'd highlight an interesting tidbit. One of the things they note is that although 23% of senators voted against the Iraq war resolution, only 11% of the senators who appeared on the Sunday shows before the invasion were anti-war. Why did the anti-war side get shunned so badly by the talk shows?

I suspect the chart on the right contains the answer. Aside from documenting the insane love affair that Sunday hosts have with John McCain, it shows that eight of the ten most popular Sunday talkers were senators and every single one of them voted for the war resolution. The reason that anti-war senators didn't get much air time was just simple laziness: the talk show bookers kept booking their favorites regardless of what was happening in the outside world and regardless of whether that meant they were shortchanging their viewers. They were on autopilot.

So here's a note to the Sunday show bookers: Maybe you should try to reach out more often to senators other than John McCain and Joe Biden. Aren't you a little bored with them anyway?

UPDATE: The full Media Matters report is here.

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February 13, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HAMAS AND THE WEST....I'm confused. The New York Times says that Israel, the U.S., and Europe are trying to figure out ways to bring down the newly elected Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority:

The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.

....The officials said the destabilization plan centers largely on money. The Palestinian Authority has a monthly cash deficit of some $60 million to $70 million after it receives between $50 million and $55 million a month from Israel in taxes and customs duties collected by Israeli officials at the borders but owed to the Palestinians.

Israel says it will cut off those payments once Hamas takes power, and put the money in escrow. On top of that, some of the aid that the Palestinians currently receive will be stopped or reduced by the United States and European Union governments, which will be constrained by law or politics from providing money to an authority run by Hamas.

But then, coming out of nowhere, is this sentence:

The United States and the European Union in particular want any failure of Hamas in leadership to be judged as Hamas's failure, not one caused by Israel and the West.

There is no further explanation of this sentence, which seems to have no relationship to anything that comes before or after it. But if Israel and the West plan to cut off the bulk of the PA's income, how can they possibly believe that Hamas's failure won't be seen as being caused by Israel and the West? Any guesses?

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By: Kevin Drum

THE META-CHENEY NARRATIVE....Honestly, I don't think the story about Dick Cheney's shooting accident is any big deal. Good for some late night laughs, but that's it.

Except, as Steve Benan summarizes, that the White House response to the incident has been so willfully bizarre: they made no announcement, apparently got special treatment from local authorities, and were unable to answer even simple questions about what happened at today's press briefing.

Now, 48 hours after the shooting, Cheney still hasn't talked to the press or even issued a statement saying he feels terrible about what happened, but he has released a statement saying that after learning he didn't have the right permit for shooting quail he has "sent a 7 dollar check to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which is the cost of an upland game bird stamp."

Can this episode get any more ridiculous? The Veep's office can't rouse itself to say even a single word about what happened, but somehow they have the time to assure us that Cheney is good for the seven bucks he failed to pay for an upland game bird stamp? Are they trying to cement his reputation as a callous and scary reactionary, or what?

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By: Kevin Drum

NEUTRALITY vs. OBJECTIVITY....Congress used to have an agency called the Office of Technology Assessment, famed for producing sharp analysis of technical topics using only a tiny staff and a tiny budget. Unfortunately, science being what it is, sometimes serious research leads scientists to conclusions that conservative politicians don't like. So Newt Gingrich killed the OTA.

Science, needless to say, marches on, and so does the need to suppress it. At NASA, climatologist James Hansen said he was recently warned of "dire consequences" if he didn't stop suggesting that global warming was real and something ought to be done about it. Meanwhile, over at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, controversy about the effect of global warming on hurricanes has been suppressed and scientists have been warned not to give interviews without prior permission. Jerry Mahlman, a former director at NOAA who retired in 2000, says that dissenting scientists are being intimidated from talking to the press and that their papers are being withheld from publication. "I know a lot of people who would love to talk to you," he told TNR's John Judis, "but they don't dare. They are worried about getting fired."

And it's not just science that modern conservatives are trying to shut down. It's broader than that. As Beth Daly of the Project on Government Oversight says, it's more like a Republican "campaign against expertise," and its latest target is the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Daly was referring to Republican congressman Pete Hoekstra's recent attack on a pair of CRS reports about the NSA's domestic spying program reports that happened to come to conclusions inconvenient to the Bush administration. Hoekstra implied that CRS's analysis was fatally flawed simply because one of the analysts involved was formerly a Democratic staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. No Democrats allowed in the CRS!

But at least CRS Director Daniel Mulhollan defended his agency in that case. Not so in the case of Louis Fisher, a long time CRS analyst who's a highly respected expert in separation of powers issues ("His writings are considered the gold standard," says Robert Spitzer of the State University of New York). On January 10 Fisher gave an interview to Government Executive in which he said that the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act hasn't been very effective "I get the picture that people can do really awful things inside agencies and they never pay any price at all, and that's really scary," he told the magazine and apparently this conclusion was inconvenient. On January 13 Fisher's boss told him he needed to be more "neutral" and on January 18 Fisher shot back with a long memo defending himself. Last week, according to Roll Call, Mulhollan ordered Fisher to apologize by the close of business Friday, something Fisher has so far declined to do.

Fisher's email to Mulhollan is worth reading for his defense of substance and logic over artificial neutrality:

The word neutrality appeared to rule out coming to a conclusion in ones writings, either inside or outside CRS. In the past, you had told me that if the evidence comes down on one side or the other, we should say so. We should not be forced to look for middle ground. Objectivity means looking at all the relevant material and presenting a report that has integrity, credibility, substance, and logic. Neutral writing implies that we take no positions and reach no conclusions.

....Any analyst in CRS, when asked to respond to a request, is often in a position of doing more than being neutral. If an attorney in [the American Law Division] is asked to analyze a draft bill and determine whether it is constitutional or not, the attorney does that, and mayproperlytell the office that existing caselaw indicates that the bill, if enacted, would likely pass muster in the courts or likely be struck down as unconstitutional. The goal of the memo is not neutrality.

Newspaper reporters might well take note of this: objectivity is not neutrality. The fact that there are two sides to a story does not make both sides equally valid. Louis Fisher appears to recognize this, and the only question left is whether he'll be fired for saying so. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 6:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

LEANING RIGHT....If you read liberal blogs, you've heard the common complaint that Sunday talk shows consistently showcase a greater number of conservative guests than liberal ones. But is it true? Media Matters took a detailed look at the question and the chart on the right shows the answer: conservatives outnumbered liberals during the Clinton years and they outnumber liberals even more heavily now. It's not your imagination.

And it's worse than that. As Paul Waldman's article in the current issue of the Monthly explains, it goes beyond politicians to include the pundits and journalists who are invited on the shows:

This ideological imbalance isn't only evident in the "official" sources that are interviewed: the elected officials, candidates, and administration officials who make up most of the shows' guests. It is even clearer in the roundtable discussions with featured journalists, [where] it has been a frequent practice for a roundtable to consist of a right-wing columnist or two supposedly "balanced" by journalists from major newspapers.

....The consequence of all this is that in every year since 1997, conservative journalists have dramatically outnumbered liberal journalists, in some years by two-to-one or more. Why would the producers of the shows believe that a William Safire (56 appearances since 1997) or Bob Novak (37 appearances) is somehow "balanced" by a Gwen Ifill (27) or Dan Balz (22)? It suggests that some may have internalized the conservative critique of the media, which assumes that daily journalists are "liberal" almost by definition, and thus can provide a counterpoint to highly partisan conservative pundits.

The result is that genuinely liberal pundits get almost no exposure on these shows. You get conservative guests, super-conservative guests, moderate liberals, and journalists. And though it's not part of this study, they're almost all men. Only 10% of the guests on Sunday talk shows are women.

Some balance.

NOTE: The survey methodology used by Media Matters is described here.

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOD TERRORISTS AND BAD TERRORISTS....A year ago I wrote about the strange case of Luis Posada Carriles, a well-known terrorist who was, very reluctantly, taken into custody by the Bush administration after holding a series of press conferences in Miami last May.

Reluctantly? Yes. You see, Posada mostly restricts his terrorism to blowing up hotels in Havana and trying to assassinate Fidel Castro. He was also the mastermind of an Air Cubana bombing in 1976 that killed 73 people. Both Cuba and Venezuela have requested his extradition.

In a defense rich with irony, Posada has fought his extradition by claiming he is likely to be tortured if he's turned over to the Venezuelan authorities. The Bush administration didn't even bother arguing about it, so the only question remaining is whether Posada will be extradited to some other country or simply set free and the smart money is on setting him free. As it turns out, when the Bush administration says it's against terrorism, it means that it's only against the bad kind of terrorism.

Kevin Jon Heller at Opinio Juris has the whole story.

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By: Kevin Drum

PROBABLE CAUSE....This sort of got buried in a post a couple of days ago, so I want to repeat it here in a post of its own. It's about computers and the meaning of "probable cause."

The nice thing about probable cause and reasonable suspicion and other similar phrases is that they have a long history behind them. There are hundreds of years of statutory definition and case law that define what they mean, and human judges interpret them in ways that most of us understand, even if we disagree about which standard ought to be used for issuing different kinds of wiretap warrants.

But the NSA's domestic spying program doesn't rely on the ordinary human understanding of these phrases. Instead, it appears to rely primarily on software algorithms that determine whether or not a person is acting in a way that merits eavesdropping. These algorithms are sophisticated and complex, and even their inventors have only a hazy idea of which specific behavioral patterns will exceed any given algorithm's threshold for recommending a wiretap.

If you're recommending a book on Amazon.com or compiling a credit score before approving a home loan, this might be OK. But is it OK when it comes to approving wiretaps on U.S. citizens? And if it is, who decides which algorithms to use? Who decides when to upgrade them and when to try new ones? Who tests them, and who evaluates them for reliability? The math jocks who created them? The computer programmers who turned them into code?

And what kind of oversight is there? No court can evaluate algorithms like this and neither can Congress. They don't have the technical chops. Do the algorithms use ethnic background as one of their parameters? Membership in suspect organizations? Associations with foreigners? Residence in specific neighborhoods? Nobody knows, and no layman can know, because these things most likely emerge from other parameters rather than being used as direct inputs to the algorithm.

For all practical purposes, then, the decision about which U.S. citizens to spy on is being vested in a small group of technicians operating in secret and creating criteria that virtually no one else understands.

Are we all OK with this?

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February 12, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE RULE OF LAW....This quote from six years ago is pretty funny. I guessed pretty quickly that the president being referred to was Bill Clinton, but guessing the author of the quote is the real trick. The hack quotient, or HQ, on display here is pretty stunning.

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By: Amy Sullivan

"CHENEY ACCIDENTALLY SHOOTS FELLOW HUNTER IN TEXAS"....I tried to write my own headline, but, really how do you top this?

Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot and injured a man during a weekend quail hunting trip in Texas, his spokeswoman said today. Harry Whittington, 78, was "alert and doing fine" [although still hospitalized] after Cheney sprayed Whittington with shotgun pellets on Saturday.

Fantastic. Forget everything I've said before. How can you help but feel safer with these guys running the country?

Amy Sullivan 4:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (284)

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By: Kevin Drum

WEATHER REPORT....Quick note to all my friends on the East Coast: it's beautiful, clear, sunny, and 77 degrees here in Southern California right now. Just thought you'd all like to know.

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By: Kevin Drum

SHIPPING AND HANDLING....How much will you pay for shipping when you order something online? It turns out it depends on where you order it from:

"Academic research shows pretty convincingly that people have separate accounts in mind, one for the item itself and one for shipping," said John Morgan, an economist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

....On eBay, Mr. Morgan found that bidders happily accepted outrageously high shipping charges if they thought they were getting a good deal on the item price of a used CD. Amazon, however, faces the opposite problem: its customers accord more weight to the shipping charge, even if modest, than to the discount on the item itself. Why should this be? Perhaps it is the online customer's chafing at being asked to pay for the privilege of waiting for a delivery.

One of the results of this is that Amazon spends a ton of money trying to reduce delivery times but finds it difficult to charge customers enough to make up for it. Because of this, its core business selling its own books and CDs might very well still be unprofitable even though it racked up about $5 billion in revenues last year. Apparently bricks and mortar aren't quite obsolete yet.

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By: Kevin Drum

SELF-CENSORSHIP....I happen to think that Andrew Sullivan's crusade to browbeat American newspapers into printing those now-famous Danish cartoons is severely wrongheaded. Freedom of speech gives Jyllands-Posten the right to run the cartoons if they want to, but it likewise gives the rest of us the right not to be bullied into doing the same just to prove we're not cowards. That kind of nonsense should be left on the kindergarten schoolyard where it belongs.

And yet....I have to admit....if you dedicate a weekly cartoon roundup to this very issue a roundup that includes examples of several cartoons mocking other religions as well as a warning that "fearing editorial censors, not to mention firebrand jihadists, U.S. cartoonists did a lot of self-censoring" it's hard to figure out any good reason not to run at least one of the offending cartoons so your readers know what this is all about.

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HILLARY....RNC chairman Ken Mehlman rather bizarrely referred to the almost robotic Hillary Clinton as "angry" this week, and Jon Chait wonders what's going on. His conclusion: it's a mirror image of the same attack that Republicans routinely hurl at Democratic male candidates.

The subtext of all this isn't very subtle. As the liberal writer Naomi Wolfe wrote in 2004: "Listen to what the Republicans are hitting Kerry with: Indecisive. Effete. French. They are all but calling this tall, accomplished war hero gay." Well, gay may be a bit strong, but they were certainly trying to question the Democrats' manliness.

....The trouble, of course, is that you can't very well run against a female candidate by calling her unmanly. So the best substitute is to call her unwomanly instead. Rather than act perky and cheerful, she's angry. There's a bad word that's supposed to spring to mind when you think of her, and it begins with the letter "b."

Actually, I think Jon is pulling his punches here. After all, there's another word that conservatives routinely associate with "unwomanly," and it's not "bitch." Here is National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez last year pretending to tsk-tsk Ed Klein over his recent 336-page hit piece on Hillary:

NRO: How many times do you use the word "lesbian" in your book? Why point out she had friends who were lesbians? Do we need to go there?

Klein: Hillarys politics were shaped by the culture of radical feminism and lesbianism at Wellesley College in the 1960s. This is paramount in exploring the political life of Hillary Clinton.

Paramount indeed. This is not exactly subtle stuff, boys and girls, and when Mehlman calls Hillary "angry" he's just test driving a slightly more subtle version of Klein's juvenile attack.

Oddly enough, though, I think these folks may be playing right into Hillary's hands. Here's the thing: conservatives have built up this image of Hillary as a man-hating, ball-busting, radical feminist revolutionary, and a lot of people believe it. But if she runs in 2008, these same people are going to see her as opposed to hearing about her for the first time, and they're going to be shocked. On TV, she comes across as cool, sober, well-informed, self-deprecating, and fairly appealing. Nothing at all like the fire-breathing Rush Limbaugh caricature.

In a sense, people like Klein and Mehlman are just setting a very low bar for Hillary to cross. When the campaign starts, all she has to do is exceed expectations in order to get people to start thinking about her differently, and Republicans are making that pretty easy. I don't know if Hillary will run, and I don't know if she can win, but if she does I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at just how many people change their minds about her once they see her in action for the first time.

FURTHER READING: Carl Cannon makes the argument that Hillary can win in 2008 here. Amy Sullivan takes the opposite side here. For a closer look at the Hillary Clinton machine, Ryan Lizza takes you on a tour of Hillaryland here.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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By: Kevin Drum

VERNON....This doesn't have any national implications or anything, but just for fun you might want to read today's story in the LA Times about one of Los Angeles's most peculiar institutions: the city of Vernon, a municipality with fewer than 60 registered voters most of them city employees that hasn't had an election since 1980. Here's what happened recently to three newcomers who tried to move into the city and run for office:

Within days, city utility trucks had turned off their power. The building they shared was slapped with red tags by inspectors who said the property was "unsafe and dangerous" as a residence. Strobe lights flashed through their windows. They and some of their relatives were placed under surveillance. Shortly, city police and other officials drilled holes in the locks and evicted the would-be office-seekers.

Having deprived the interlopers of city residence, Vernon officials on Jan. 27 disqualified them from the ballot.

Charming, no?

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February 11, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

SHIELD LAW UPDATE....The New York Times reports that the Department of Justice is moving very quickly in its investigation of who leaked details of the NSA's domestic spying program to the New York Times:

Porter J. Goss, the C.I.A. director...speaking at a Senate intelligence committee hearing on Feb. 2, said: "It is my aim and it is my hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information. I believe the safety of this nation and the people of this country deserve nothing less."

....The Justice Department took the unusual step of announcing the opening of the investigation on Dec. 30, and since then, government officials said, investigators and prosecutors have worked quickly to assemble an investigative team and obtain a preliminary grasp of whether the leaking of the information violated the law....Several officials described the investigation as aggressive and fast-moving.

At a minimum, I figure the following reporters are at risk of cooling their heels in a federal penitentiary later this year if they refuse to testify about their sources for the various NSA stories they've written: Dan Eggan, James Risen, Eric Lichtblau, Barton Gellman, Dafna Linzer and Carol Leonnig. Too bad we don't have a federal shield law to protect them.

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By: Kevin Drum

FOSSILIZED HATS AND BABY DINOSAURS....The LA Times profiles fanatical creationist Ken Ham today:

He showed the children a photo of a fossilized hat found in a mine to prove it doesn't take millions of years to create ancient-looking artifacts. He pointed out cave drawings of a creature resembling a brachiosaur to make the case that man lived alongside dinosaurs after God created all the land animals on Day 6.

....Ham encourages people to further their research with the dozens of books and DVDs sold by his ministry. They give answers to every question a critic might ask: How did Noah fit dinosaurs on the ark? He took babies. Why didn't a tyrannosaur eat Eve? All creatures were vegetarians until Adam's sin brought death into the world. How can we have modern breeds of dog like the poodle if God finished his work 6,000 years ago? He created a dog "kind" a master blueprint and let evolution take over from there.

Feel free to laugh or cry as the spirit moves you. I did a little of both myself.

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By: Kevin Drum

NYT LINKS....I am annoyed with the New York Times. What follows is some high grade blog wonkery, but if you care about creating permanent links to Times articles in blog entries, read on.

URLs for NYT articles have a standard form. For example, here's the URL for James Risen's December 16 story that exposed the NSA's domestic spying program:

http://nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/16program.html

This URL works only for a limited time. If you click it now, it takes you to the NYT archives, where you have to pay to see the full article.

This makes the Times undesirable as a long-term blog source, so a couple of years ago Dave Winer negotiated a deal with the Times to provide specially coded URLs that would last forever. Hooray! Then, last year, the Times began providing those special coded URLs directly for its front page articles so you didn't have to go through any special hoops to generate them. Here's what the coded URL looks like for the Risen article:

http://nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/16program.html?
ei=5094&en=c7596fe0d4798785&hp=&ex=1134795600&partner=homepage

But guess what? It turns out these coded URLs don't work: after a few days they redirect you to the Times archive, just like uncoded URLs. I've been using these URLs for months on the assumption that they were permanent links, and every one of them is now broken and useless.

I don't know what the point of these ridiculous bait-and-switch URLs is, but today's lesson is obvious: don't use them. They look like they work, but they're worse than useless. Instead, you should continue using the NYT Link Generator to create genuine permanent links. Simple instructions are here, and the links it generates look like this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/16program.html?
ex=1292389200&en=e32072d786623ac1&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland

That is all. You may now go about your regular business.

Kevin Drum 6:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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By: Kevin Drum

GEORGE AND JACK....Here it is! Finally! The long awaited picture of George Bush and Jack Abramoff in the same room. You can just feel the tension, can't you?

The New York Times reports that it got the photo from Raul Garza of the Kickapoo tribe of southwest Texas, the guy shaking hands with Bush. It's in black and white because Garza insisted "without explanation" that it run that way. As for what Abramoff was doing there, everybody involved claims to be clueless:

Mr. McClellan said that Mr. Abramoff's name had not appeared on the invitation list of the May 2001 meeting and that it was unclear how the lobbyist had entered the White House grounds.

....It is not clear how Mr. Abramoff might have gotten Mr. Garza included in the president's meeting. White House records show the meeting was also attended by Grover Norquist, a friend of Mr. Abramoff's who is a leading conservative strategist and president of the group Americans for Tax Reform, which was helping to rally support for Mr. Bush's tax cuts, the issue that was the reason for the meeting.

So apparently Abramoff had no trouble waltzing into the White House whether he was invited or not. It's almost like he was a regular visitor or something.

UPDATE: Time has the picture in glorious color here.

Kevin Drum 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Amy Sullivan

BASKETBLOGGING: WEEKEND EDITION....There are truly few things that can make me as happy as a good basketball game. Last night we saw the Wizards beat the Cavaliers 101-89 in a less-competitive-than-expected match-up. It was my first time watching LeBron James and although I'm not disputing that he's incredibly talented, he was awfully human last night. LeBron shot a respectable 18 points but was 6 for 23 on the night and bricked half his shots. His shot was definitely off all night, but he was also contained by the much-maligned Wizards defense, which actually stopped him from driving the lane most of the game.

On the other hand, our belatedly-appointed All-Star Gilbert Arenas had an excellent night, coming just two rebounds short of a triple-double. He was joined by a hot Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, who saved the night by answering a couple of key three-points by Cleveland late in the game. That scoring trio is definitely starting to gel, and although I'm still annoyed that it took Eddie Jordan so long to get Butler into the starting line-up, I'd rather have them taking off in the second half of the season than the first. With this win over the Cavs and previous victories against the Spurs, Pistons, Phoenix, and others, the Wizards have racked up wins against every contender except Miami.

Final note from the game: Gilbert Arenas may be the only NBA player who wears low-tops. Yep, that's right--he runs around the court in regular Adidas low-top sneakers. Go figure.

Amy Sullivan 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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By: Kevin Drum

A BLAST FROM THE PAST....It looks like Ken Starr is up to his old tricks:

Sworn statements of five of six jurors urging clemency for death row inmate Michael Morales a convicted murderer they recommended be executed were forged documents, the San Joaquin County district attorney's office said Friday.

....The affidavits were submitted Tuesday under seal to [Arnold] Schwarzenegger on Morales' behalf by his high-profile defense team: [David] Senior and former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Once a sleazebag, always a sleazebag. It's actually kind of comforting to know that some things never change.

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By: Kevin Drum

SATURDAY BOWEN BLOGGING....Along with a few other LA-based bloggers I had dinner last night with Debra Bowen, who's running for California Secretary of State this year. She was very impressive: technically literate, very knowledgable about voting technologies (electronic voting, absentee voting, audit trails, etc.), and genuinely dedicated to transparency and citizen access to state information. She explained why legislation to require open source software for voting machines is likely to fail (Microsoft doesn't like it) and why simple, reliable technologies like SAT-style optical mark ballots are a nonstarter these days (the HAVA act requires that disabled voters be able to cast ballots without assistance, and since county registrars don't want to deal with two different technologies it means most of them default to e-voting for everyone).

All in all, an informative and enjoyable evening. But most impressive of all was this: When I introduced myself, Bowen's first words were, "Oh! Friday cat blogging." Now that's a politician who knows her constituency! Inkblot, who thinks America's voting problems could be solved by extending the franchise to cats, was so impressed that he even roused himself momentarily to peek outside the sock drawer he slept in last night. Then he went back to sleep.

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February 10, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HAVE A DAUGHTER, BECOME A LIBERAL....Ebonya Washington of Yale University has found, unsurprisingly, that having daughters makes you more sensitive to women's issues, even if you're a congressman:

Washington analyzed the family composition of the 105th Congress (1997-98), as well as how the liberal National Organization for Women ranked each member based on their votes on 20 women's issues. The rating scale ranged from zero (consistently voted against the NOW position) to 100 (always voted in accord with NOW's position).

She found that legislators with all daughters have NOW scores that are 12 points higher than those with all sons. Among those with three children, "each daughter is associated with an increase of nearly 3 points," Washington said.

Her results held for both Democratic and Republican congressmen.

The excerpt above is from the Washington Post, but that's not where I found it. In this brave new world, I found it at Shakespeare's Sister, who found it from Feministing, who found it from the Kaiser Report, who found it from the Post. The circle will be complete, I suppose, if Dan Froomkin now notes that I've blogged about it.

The full report is here if you want to pay five bucks for it.

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By: Kevin Drum

ROCKET SCIENCE NOW AN OFFICIAL OLYMPIC SPORT....Prepare to be even more flummoxed than usual by scoring in the Olympic figure skating competition this year:

The familiar 6.0 standard has been replaced by cumulative scores derived from prescribed values for each jump and spin. Judges' names are no longer linked to their marks at international competitions, and a computer randomly chooses nine scores from every 12-judge panel in calculating scores.

....For fans, calculators are a must. So are translators: The detailed result sheet from the long program Sasha Cohen performed to win her first U.S. championship last month shows that she did a CCoSp4, an LSp4 and a CCoSp3. Runner-up Kimmie Meissner's routine included an SpSt3 and a 1A. (See accompanying story and chart.)

Here's the accompanying story:

The CCoSp4 performed by Sasha Cohen in her long program at the U.S. championships was a spin combination with change of position and a change of foot. It was graded a level 4, with a base value of 3.5. She got an additional 0.64 grade of execution for 4.14 total points.

Her LSp4 was a layback spin rated a level 4 with a base value of 2.4. With a 0.86 grade of execution, she got 3.26 points for it. Her final move, a CCoSp3, was another spin combination with change of position and change of foot but it was rated only a level 3, with a base value of 3.0. Adding the grade of execution, she got 3.79 points for it.

....The technical specialist, or caller, calls the execution of each element. Non-jump elements such as spins or step sequences are assigned a level based on difficulty, determined by the number of rotations or use of different edges.

Did you get all that?

Kevin Drum 4:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

MANIPULATING INTELLIGENCE....Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer responsible for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, has an article today in Foreign Affairs about the politicization of intelligence in the runup to the Iraq war. It's fairly weak on the subject of WMD, which he admits everyone in the intelligence community believed in, but much stronger on the administration's cynical manipulation of supposed ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda:

In the shadowy world of international terrorism, almost anyone can be "linked" to almost anyone else if enough effort is made to find evidence of casual contacts, the mentioning of names in the same breath, or indications of common travels or experiences. Even the most minimal and circumstantial data can be adduced as evidence of a "relationship," ignoring the important question of whether a given regime actually supports a given terrorist group and the fact that relationships can be competitive or distrustful rather than cooperative.

.... The Bush team approached the community again and again and pushed it to look harder at the supposed Saddam-al Qaeda relationship....The process did not involve intelligence work designed to find dangers not yet discovered or to inform decisions not yet made. Instead, it involved research to find evidence in support of a specific line of argument that Saddam was cooperating with al Qaeda which in turn was being used to justify a specific policy decision.

....The issue became even more time-consuming as the conflict between intelligence officials and policymakers escalated into a battle, with the intelligence community struggling to maintain its objectivity even as policymakers pressed the Saddam-al Qaeda connection. The administration's rejection of the intelligence community's judgments became especially clear with the formation of a special Pentagon unit, the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group. The unit, which reported to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, was dedicated to finding every possible link between Saddam and al Qaeda, and its briefings accused the intelligence community of faulty analysis for failing to see the supposed alliance.

I continue to think that the issue of Iraq's WMD is a difficult one. As I've noted before, there's no question that the administration manipulated the WMD intelligence. At the same time, though, it also seems clear that they, along with the intelligence community, really did believe Iraq was actively producing chemical and biological weapons. (Not nukes, though. The "mushroom cloud" talk was pretty clearly just for show.)

But the Saddam-al-Qaeda connection is entirely different. Not only did the Bush administration manipulate the intelligence, but I don't think they even believed in it themselves. It was pure pretense from start to finish.

Kevin Drum 4:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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By: Kevin Drum

CARTOONS....So what's going to be the upshot in the West over the whole Danish cartoon debacle? My honest answer, I suppose, is "nothing," since stuff like this usually blows over eventually and everyone forgets about it. But assuming there is some long-term reaction, what will it be? Andrew Sullivan sums up the conventional wisdom on the right:

People keep talking about avoiding conflict. They are in denial. The conflict is already here. It is outrageous to be informed by a crowd of hundreds of thousands that the West must give up its freedoms in order to avoid violence. I'm relieved to see that this moment has forced some very hard thinking on the left.

That might be the case. After all, it's pretty obvious that this entire episode is being cynically manipulated by corrupt regional leaders, and it's entirely possible that this will galvanize Western opinion in favor of endless war against fundamentalist Islam and the governments that support it.

But there's another possibility too: that the famous American heartland finally gets sick and tired of the whole thing and decides it's best to let them all go to hell in their own way. Pull the troops out, let them kill each other if they want, start working seriously on energy independence, and from now on just mind our own business. This doesn't strike me as the most likely reaction, but I wouldn't discount it entirely.

As for the substance of the matter, there's still not much to say about it. Of course the Jyllands-Posten cartoons were puerile and offensive, and its editor was stupid to print them. Anyone who wanted to picket Jyllands-Posten's offices or cancel their subscription last September would have had my sympathy. Beyond that, though, we should simply misquote Voltaire and leave it at that:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

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By: Kevin Drum

ABORTION....Anne Lamott was on a panel about politics and faith recently, and everyone was nodding and agreeing and having a grand old time until the subject of abortion came up:

I knew what I was supposed to have said, as a progressive Christian: that it's all very complicated and painful, and that Jim was right in saying that the abortion rate in America is way too high for a caring and compassionate society.

But I did the only thing I could think to do: plunge on, and tell my truth. I said that this is the most intimate decision a woman makes, and she makes it all alone, in her deepest heart of hearts, sometimes with the man by whom she is pregnant, with her dearest friends or with her doctor but without the personal opinion of say, Tom DeLay or Karl Rove.

I said I could not believe that men committed to equality and civil rights were still challenging the basic rights of women. I thought about all the photo-ops at which President Bush had signed legislation limiting abortion rights, surrounded by 10 or so white, self-righteous married men, who have forced God knows how many girlfriends into doing God knows what. I thought of the time Bush appeared on stage with children born from frozen embryos, children he calls "snowflake babies," and of the embryos themselves, which he calls the youngest and most vulnerable Americans.

And somehow, as I was answering, I got louder and maybe even more emphatic than I actually felt, and said it was not a morally ambiguous issue for me at all. I said that fetuses are not babies yet; that there was actually a real difference between pro-abortion people, like me, and Klaus Barbie.

Then I said that a woman's right to choose was nobody else's goddamn business. This got their attention.

It's nice to hear a few people of faith still willing to say this. I know it's bad for elections and bad for liberal prospects in the heartland yada yada yada, but the hand wringing game eventually gets hard to play for those of us who don't have the inhuman, talking points-driven self-discipline of the modern American politician.

In any case, I'm with Lamott. I don't think nonviable fetuses are human beings. Terminating them doesn't bother me, and it's none of my business anyway. For all I care, women are free to use abortion as their standard method of birth control if they want to. Nor do I really care much if we reduce the abortion rate in America. Safe and legal is good enough for me. I don't think abortion is a morally ambiguous issue, I don't think getting one should be an emotionally traumatic experience, and no, speaking as a husband, I don't think husbands should have any legal say in the matter.

So much for nuance. I guess I'm not going to be running for office anytime soon, am I?

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By: Kevin Drum

FLOODING IN NEW ORLEANS....Last night the New York Times was trumpeting an email that "proved" the White House knew all about the levee breaks in New Orleans on Monday, August 29, but I found the evidence pretty unconvincing. The email doesn't actually mention the levees at all and its tone isn't exactly a call to arms. "FYI" is not a term I usually use when I want people to leap out of bed and start calling up the National Guard.

Today, however, former FEMA director Michael Brown is testifying before Congress, and he's saying pretty specifically that he knew about the levee breaches on Monday morning and informed the White House about it on multiple occasions that day:

The storm hit New Orleans and the Gulf coast on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29. Mr. Brown said he first learned of the levee breaches from a FEMA official in New Orleans, Marty Bahamonde, who sent a report Monday morning at about 10 a.m. to report severe flooding, up to the second floor of houses in many parts of the city.

Mr. Brown, who at the time was in Baton Rouge, said he alerted FEMA headquarters, asking them to contact Mr. Bahamonde directly to confirm the information.

"I also put in a call" to White House staffers, Mr. Brown said. He said that he spoke at least twice that day to Joe Hagen, a deputy White House chief of staff, and said that he might have also spoken to Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff.

Is Brown telling the truth? Or trying to cover his own ass? Hard to say. But if FEMA really did know about the levee breaks on Monday morning, how is it that the only document we've seen so far from that day written a full 12 hours after FEMA knew about the breaks doesn't mention them at all? There's not much question that George Bush took his vacation more seriously than he did the Hurricane Katrina crisis, but there's not much evidence that FEMA was taking it very seriously either. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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February 9, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND THE TERRORISTS....Here's the list of the ten terrorist plots the Bush administration claims to have foiled since 9/11. Great stuff. But I have a question. If it's now OK to reveal information like this, how about also releasing a list of the terrorist plots broken up in the four years prior to 9/11?

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By: Kevin Drum

GEORGE DEUTSCH UPDATE....I have some advice for ex-NASA flack and Texas A&M dropout George Deutsch: When you're in a hole, your first order of business is to stop digging. At the rate you're going, you're going to be in China before long.

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBRARY TOWER....Just in case there are lots of people who think that LA must be a pretty scholarly town if it dedicates a 73-story skyscraper to its library, I've got some bad news: there's no actual library in the Library Tower. The library is across the street.

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBBY'S LATEST DEFENSE....The latest from Murray Waas:

Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, testified to a federal grand jury that he had been "authorized" by Cheney and other White House "superiors" in the summer of 2003 to disclose classified information to journalists to defend the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence in making the case to go to war with Iraq, according to attorneys familiar with the matter, and to court records.

....Beyond what was stated in the court paper, say people with firsthand knowledge of the matter, Libby also indicated what he will offer as a broad defense during his upcoming criminal trial: that Vice President Cheney and other senior Bush administration officials had earlier encouraged and authorized him to share classified information with journalists to build public support for going to war.

So Libby's defense is going to be that releasing classified information for political purposes was so common in the VP's office that he figured exposing Valerie Plame was just SOP? All righty....

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FUTURE OF NATIONAL SECURITY....Anyone who has experience with a big bureaucracy knows that budget authority is the #1 indicator of what their organization's real priorities are. That's especially true in the federal government, where spin is a way of life and hard spending plans are virtually the only way to figure out what the boss considers really important.

So if that's the case, just how seriously does the Bush administration take the future threat from global terrorism? The answer, judging from its recently released Quadrennial Defense Review, is not very. To be sure, it contains lots of fine words about "long wars" and post-9/11 priorities, but when you look at where the money is going, virtually nothing has changed. As far as the 2006 QDR is concerned, we're not fighting al-Qaeda, we're still fighting the Cold War.

This is one reason to like the "progressive" QDR on offer from the Center for American Progress: it demonstrates its seriousness by making hard budget choices. You have to read the full report for the details, but here, as they say, is the bottom line:

I don't like everything about the CAP plan its proposal for a unified national security budget is probably good, for example, but even though it's primarily a DoD blueprint I wish it had spent more time discussing deeper peacekeeping and nation building strategies as a way of preventing terrorist attacks. Still, it's far superior to the official Pentagon plan, which might as well have been drafted 20 years ago. In contrast, CAP's plan eliminates half a dozen obsolete weapons platforms that we no longer need and uses that money instead for what we do need: more special forces, more peacekeeping divisions, more civil affairs, and more money for homeland security.

This is the kind of plan Democrats ought to be proposing as an alternative to the unserious approach to terrorism on offer from the Bush administration. Unfortunately, what prevents this is the same iron triangle that prevents Republicans from doing it: military officers whose careers are built on championing specific weapons platforms, defense contractors whose livelihoods depend on these platforms, and members of congress who are more afraid of losing a few jobs in their districts than they are of al-Qaeda.

But it's a missed opportunity if we don't take advantage of the release of the administration's QDR to champion an alternative. Donald Rumsfeld's final, tired draft is essentially an admission of failure, an acknowledgement that Republicans don't have the guts or the muscle to make difficult changes to the military even when they control every branch of the government. But as Lorelei Kelly says:

The information support system for liberals who want to talk about national security is serious and it's growing. Try the Foreign Policy Leadership Council, the Security Policy Working Group and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Read up! We need to get started on this while Rove is preoccupied with the Energizer Bunny (training it to do an interpretive dance when it runs into the constitution, no doubt).

Good advice.

Kevin Drum 2:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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By: Kevin Drum

MICHAEL YON....The Los Angeles Times profiles Iraq war blogger/reporter Michael Yon today:

From the start, Yon ignored the barriers that traditionally separated the press from its subjects. He openly rooted for soldiers and helped them collect the wreckage after roadside bombings.

In a crisis last summer, the fuzzy boundary between Yon and the troops seemed to disappear altogether. The incident began with a miles-long pursuit through Mosul, ending with Lt. Col. Kurilla being shot three times by an attacker who hid inside a shop.

In Yon's account, confirmed by others present, the two soldiers closest at hand froze. Sgt. Maj. Robert Prosser appeared and charged into the shop, toward the enemy. But it appeared to Yon that Prosser too went down.

Yon had already screamed at the unmoving soldiers to attack. Now he called to them for a grenade, which they did not have. So he picked up Prosser's empty M-4 rifle, loaded in a 30-round magazine, and fired three shots into the shop.

Yon learned later that Prosser was choking the attacker into unconsciousness.

One of Yon's shots punctured a barbecue-sized propane canister, which went flying wildly. The confusion actually gave the insurgent a moment to fight back before he was finally subdued.

"When we got back to the [base], I said, 'Have you lost your mind?' " Prosser recalled. "And he said, 'I was only trying to help.' I understood. But from a military perspective, I just cannot have him picking up a weapon."

Yon's blog is here.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NSA AND THE FOURTH AMENDMENT....Mickey Kaus, writing about the NSA's domestic spying program, has decided that the Fourth Amendment is obsolete:

If the administration went through 5,000 phone calls and emails and identified 10 people suspicious enough to watch, that's a good ratio of searches to success, not a sign that the program is overbroad or useless....Maybe the government's not casting its electronic net wide enough. I'd rather they go through 100,000 phone calls and identify 20 people.

Of course, 20 years ago Mickey decided the Fifth Amendment was obsolete too. Which part of the Bill of Rights will be the next to go?

But Mickey's post reminds me of something I've been meaning to write about. It's something that I know is obvious, and yet I keep getting the funny feeling that not everyone understands exactly what's going on with the NSA's program. NSA didn't go through 5,000 phone calls to find 10 suspects. They went through millions. Maybe billions.

President Bush has characterized the program this way: "If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, we'd like to know why." Well, me too. But that isn't what's happening. We're not eavesdropping on phone calls from al-Qaeda leaders. We're not getting speed dial numbers from captured al-Qaeda cell phones. What we're doing is making wild guesses about whose phones to tap.

The details are still murky, but what the NSA appears to be doing is very large scale data mining on virtually every phone call and email between the United States and overseas, looking for patterns that fit a profile of some kind. Maybe twice or three-times removed links to suspected terrorist phone numbers. Or anyone who makes more than 5% of their calls to Afghanistan. Or people who make a suspiciously large volume of calls on certain dates or from certain mosques. Stuff like that.

Then, if you happen to fit one of these profiles, your phone is tapped and an NSA analyst decides if you're really a terrorist suspect. This apparently happens tens of thousands of times a year and most are washed out. Perhaps a thousand or two thousand a year are still suspicious enough to pass on the FBI, and most of these wash out too. At the end of the year, five or ten are still of enough interest to justify getting a domestic wiretap warrant.

Is this useful? Maybe. But we're not listening in on al-Qaeda's phone calls to America. We're tapping the phones of U.S. citizens who fit a hazy and seldom accurate profile that NSA finds vaguely suspicious. So here's a few questions for anyone who thinks the Fourth Amendment is obsolete:

  • The algorithms that determine NSA's profiles are almost certainly extremely complex and technical far beyond the capability of any lawyer to understand. So who gets to decide which algorithms are legitimate and which ones go too far? NSA's computer programmers?

  • What happens to the information that's collected on the tens of thousands of people who turn out to be innocent bystanders? Is it kept around forever?

  • Is this program limited solely to international terrorism? Are you sure? If it works, why not use it to fight drug smuggling, sex slave trafficking, and software piracy?

  • Since this program was meant to be completely secret, what mechanism prevents eventual abuse? Because programs like this, even if they're started with the best intentions, always get abused eventually.

Bottom line: if the Fourth Amendment is obsolete, then propose a constitutional amendment to change it. I don't think most Americans would be happy to substitute "fits a vague NSA profile" for "probable cause," but I could be wrong. Let's put it to a vote and find out.

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (189)

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By: Kevin Drum

AN HONORABLE MAN....Professor Bainbridge has perhaps the final word on the subject of using funerals to make a political statement.

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By: Kevin Drum

NSA SPYING UPDATE....The Bush administration finally briefed a House subcommittee Wednesday on the NSA's domestic spying program. Blue Dog Democrat Bud Cramer apparently came away impressed:

"It's a different program than I was beginning to let myself believe," said Alabama Rep. Bud Cramer, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee's oversight subcommittee. "This may be a valuable program," Cramer said, adding that he didn't know if it was legal. "My direction of thinking was changed tremendously."

On the other hand, the current and past presiding judges of the FISA court have some issues:

Twice in the past four years, a top Justice Department lawyer warned the presiding judge of a secret surveillance court that information overheard in President Bush's eavesdropping program may have been improperly used to obtain wiretap warrants in the court, according to two sources with knowledge of those events.

The revelations infuriated U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly who, like her predecessor, Royce C. Lamberth, had expressed serious doubts about whether the warrantless monitoring of phone calls and e-mails ordered by Bush was legal....Both judges expressed concern to senior officials that the president's program, if ever made public and challenged in court, ran a significant risk of being declared unconstitutional, according to sources familiar with their actions.

Curiouser and curiouser. Not just illegal, unconstitutional.

UPDATE: On the positive side, the Wall Street Journal reports that the recent surge in wiretaps has been great for businesses that help telecoms companies respond to law enforcement requests. Gotta love the Journal, always finding the business angle the other guys miss.....

Kevin Drum 1:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

DATA MINING....Suddenly, data mining is everywhere. Not only do we have the NSA's domestic spying program, which most likely involves data mining of some kind, but apparently good 'ol TIA is back too it's just changed its name. The funny thing, though, is that it's not clear what it's changed its name to. Here is Mark Clayton of the Christian Science Monitor describing a program called ADVISE:

A major part of ADVISE involves data-mining or "dataveillance," as some call it.....What sets ADVISE apart is its scope. It would collect a vast array of corporate and public online information from financial records to CNN news stories and cross-reference it against US intelligence and law-enforcement records.

....ADVISE "looks very much like TIA," Mr. Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes in an e-mail. "There's the same emphasis on broad collection and pattern analysis."

And here is Michael Hirsh of Newsweek describing a program called Topsail:

Today, very quietly, the core of TIA survives with a new codename of Topsail....It is in programs like these that real data mining is going on and considering the furor over TIA with fewer intrusions on civil liberties than occur under the NSA surveillance program.

Hirsh suggests that data mining is a pretty useful technology, and I agree. He also suggests that there's a lot of lousy data mining going on, largely because our intelligence community is broken and doesn't have anything better to do. That may be right as well.

In the end, though, data mining is just a technology, neither inherently good nor bad. It's the details that matter:

  • What information gets sucked into the system? Public information is fine; personal information that's supposed to be private isn't.

  • How is the information used? Data mining has a high error rate, which means that it should be used only to produce leads that are followed up by professionals. No one should ever be placed on a watchlist or a no-fly list based solely on what the system spits out.

  • Does it work? Or, as Hirsh suggests, do these systems become billion-dollar black holes of unworkable technology?

  • What kind of oversight is there? Security professionals are just doing their jobs when they create data mining systems, but the potential for abuse is high even if they think they're following the rules. Congress needs to be intimately involved.

This is a hot topic. I expect to see it crop up a lot in the news this year.

Kevin Drum 12:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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February 8, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE JOY OF DIAL-UP....It had never occurred to me that there might be an advantage to the long connection times and slow download speeds of dial-up internet access, but I guess I was wrong. Gives a new meaning to "world without end."

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By: Christina Larson

GOD AND CLIMATE.... A week after the National Association of Evangelicals announced that it would not take a stance on global warming, a group known as the Evangelical Climate Initiative this morning released of a statement signed by 86 evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren, author of the The Purpose-Driven Life; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Leith Anderson, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Heres an abbreviated version:

Claim 1: Human-induced climate change is real.

Claim 2: The consequences of climate change will be significant, and will hit the poor the hardest.

Claim 3: Christian moral convictions demand our response to the climate change problem.

Claim 4: The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change starting now.

It would be inaccurate for environmentalists to claim that the evangelical community is either with us or against us. Many prominent leaders are not on board. Focus on the Familys James Dobson, for instance, earlier urged the NAE to not adopt any official position on the issue of global climate change....Global warming is not a consensus issue.

Still, in the coming weeks, print, radio and TV ads aimed at evangelicals (and a few targeted members of Congress) will run in The New York Times, Christianity Today, Roll Call, FOX News, CNN, ABC Family, and elsewhere. The print ads feature a photo of earth from space, the headline Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis, and a partial list of religious leaders whove signed the statement.

At a press conference this morning in Washington, a half dozen evangelical leaders talked about why they had decided to support this campaign. One undercurrent of the discussion was the belief, among some religious leaders, that the faith community had in recent decades retreated from its historical role advocating for positive government action, except on limited and often divisive issues. Dr. Duane Litfin, president of evangelical Wheaton College, said it was a mistake for religious leaders to shy away from public initiatives on issues such as global warming because of a perception that thats what liberals do.

Christina Larson 7:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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By: Kevin Drum

TAG TEAM FACT CHECKING....Who does a better job of skewering Robert Samuelson's transparently mendacious column today about Bill Clinton's economic record? Greg Anrig, who keeps it short and punchy, or Brad DeLong, who provides the wonkish detail?

Read them both and decide for yourself.

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By: Kevin Drum

JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE....Like the creature that won't die no matter how many bullets you put through its heart, Social Security privatization is back for an encore in President Bush's 2007 budget proposal. Allan Sloan has the dirt. The proposal itself, such as it is, is on p. 286 here, and the cost estimate is on p. 321 here. As usual, details are magnificently nonexistent.

My guess is that this is a nothingburger, just a way for Bush to demonstrate that he's not backing down on anything no how, no way. Still, you have to love the chip-on-a-shoulder rhetoric:

By adopting progressive indexing and allowing young workers to create voluntary personal retirement accounts within the Social Security system, the Presidents recommendations would provide future seniors with real money instead of the current systems empty promises.

That's our boy. The full faith and credit of the United States government is just an "empty promise." It's sort of like listening to an angry five-year-old, isn't it?

My prediction: this proposal won't even die a sad death. It will just be ignored.

Kevin Drum 2:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (149)

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By: Amy Sullivan

A PROPER BURIAL?....I don't have much time to comment on this right now, but I feel the need to say how absurd and ridiculous the whole debate about Mrs. King's funeral is. I was on "Scarborough Country" to argue about it last night (you can see the shout-fest here), but I figured this was just a stupid debate Scarborough ginned up so he could have something to talk about. Plus, he was joined by Tucker Carlson, who you may remember was one of the guys responsible for screaming "outrage!" after Paul Wellstone's funeral.

They're the ones making this political. As far as I'm concerned, everything I heard at the funeral was in the spirit of the Kings' lives and legacies. These were not shrinking violets who stood on ceremony and mouthed niceties to political leaders. They spent their lives preaching truth to power, specifically saying the hard things that needed to be said.

Conservatives don't seem to be as concerned when solemn events are made political in a way that suits them. In 1993, for example, at the dedication of Washington's Holocaust Museum, keynote speaker Elie Wiesel turned to President Clinton and admonished him for not getting involved in Bosnia, telling him that once again the U.S. was turning a blind eye.

The official white-washed (no pun intended) version of the Kings may be that they were all about love and peace and overcoming differences (all true), but to leave it at that is to do them both a disservice. They were radical in their own way, pushing conservatives and a lot of liberals down a path that the rest of the country would have preferred to tip-toe along. They couldn't be silenced in life and they can't be silenced in death. Shame on conservatives for even trying.

Amy Sullivan 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (226)

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By: Kevin Drum

WORDS vs. DEEDS....Addicted to oil? Fine words. So why is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory the Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research laying off 32 people, including eight research staff, because of a budget shortfall?

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By: Stephanie Mencimer

TORT REFORM, CORPORATE STYLE....After the Sago coal mine disaster killed 12 West Virginia miners last month, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) came under widespread criticism for failing to adequately regulate the coal industry and protect mine workers. Critics blamed the Bush administration for stocking the agency with coal industry cronies who wanted a more cooperative approach to safety regulations rather than serious enforcement. Now, one more group has joined the chorus of MSHA critics: the very coal companies that worked to gut the agency in the first place.

Here's the story. Back in 2003, West Virginia suffered its worst coal mining accident in a decade when an explosion in a mine owned by CONSOL Energy killed three miners and disabled two others. The families of the dead and injured miners sued CONSOL, alleging that it had demonstrated a willful disregard for its workers safety and was ultimately responsible for the accident. The trial is set for June. But with all the recent publicity about MSHAs failures, CONSOL apparently saw an opportunity for a novel legal defense.

This week, after three years of litigation, CONSOL and the other defendants filed a motion stating their intention to sue MSHA, which they argue is really to blame for the mine explosion. The negligence of CONSOL, if any, was the result, in whole or in part, of the negligence of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, they write, demanding that the federal government pay any jury award against the companies that might result from the litigation, along with all their legal fees.

Big drug companies and automakers have been arguing for years that simply being regulated should immunize them from lawsuits. But suing the regulators for doing a bad job of it is a novel innovation. CONSULs complaint reads like a stop me before I kill again defense, akin to blaming the police for an accident because they failed to stop you from speeding in the past.

If it works, you can imagine the creative possibilities for companies in the midst of expensive litigation: Merck sues FDA for letting it sell Vioxx! Ford sues the transportation department for not demanding roll-over tests for SUVs! DuPont sues EPA for failing to notice when it dumped toxic chemicals into peoples drinking water! And if the companies win, the federal government can pay all those big jury verdicts. Its amazing they didnt think of this sooner....

Stephanie Mencimer 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION IS WEAK ON TERRORISM....Max Boot is unhappy. The Quadrennial Defense Review and the 2007 budget have lots of nice words, he says, but money talks a lot louder about the Bush administration's real defense priorities:

For example, the Pentagon is continuing to fund three ruinously expensive short-range fighters the F/A-22 Raptor, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter even though we already have total dominance in the air. The entire budget for language and cultural training $181 million comes to less than the cost of one F-35.

Also being funded is the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine....Even more ill-suited for irregular warfare are two other ships whose development will eat up untold billions: the CVN-21 and the DD(X), a next-generation aircraft carrier and destroyer, respectively.

....Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld still seems to think that Iraq and Afghanistan are the exceptions, not the norm that in the future we won't need so many ground troops. The U.S. has already paid a high price for the misguided decisions not to send enough troops to secure Iraq or to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. Now, it appears, we are fated to make the same mistake on future battlefields, simply because we won't have enough troops available.

It's heartwarming to see a conservative columnist offer such a clear criticism of the Bush administration on national security grounds. It would be lovely to see a liberal columnist do the same, wouldn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NSA AND THE GOP....I think the NSA's domestic spying program has a good chance of becoming a serious wedge issue in the Republican Party. There's a group of hardcore conservatives who find the program unsettling on ideological small government grounds, and another group who find it unsettling because it's exposed George Bush's apparent contempt for other branches of government ("we have all the legal authority we need," says Dick Cheney). Put 'em together and there's a significant minority within the party who really aren't very happy about this.

Here's the latest evidence.

Kevin Drum 1:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (241)

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By: Kevin Drum

ADVICE FROM THE OPPOSITION....A campaign manifesto for the Democratic Party:

These guys are corrupt and incompetent. They have screwed up the Iraq war, turned FEMA into a joke and landed the next generation with a mountain of debt. We're for making the homeland safer, winning back our allies, and taking on the Iranian dictatorship. We're for energy independence, universal healthcare and balancing the budget again.

Um, yeah, sounds good to me. So why isn't someone on our side saying something like this?

Kevin Drum 1:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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By: Kevin Drum

BETTY FRIEDAN....Pepper is surprised that Betty Friedan's death hasn't gotten more attention, and I guess I am too. I suppose the reason is partly due to her temperamental personality and famously stormy battles with fellow feminists, which cuts way down on the number of people willing to pen loving eulogies in her memory; partly because later feminists became disenchanted with her stubborn unwillingness to embrace gender issues beyond the equality feminism she had pioneered (or, perhaps, resurrected); and partly just because she's been out of the limelight for a long time and a lot of people today barely even know who she was.

Still, she changed the world. Things are pretty tough when that by itself isn't enough to get you a boatload of attention when you die. In minor tribute, then, here's an excerpt from The Feminine Mystique:

It is easy to see the concrete details that trap the suburban housewife, the continual demands on her time. But the chains that bind her in her trap are chains in her own mind and spirit. They are chains made up of mistaken ideas and misinterpreted facts, of incomplete truths and unreal choices. They are not easily seen and not easily shaken off.

How can any woman see the whole truth within the bounds of her own life? How can she believe that voice inside herself when it denies the conventional, accepted truths by which she has been living? And yet the women I have talked to, who are finally listening to that inner voice, seem in some incredible way to be groping through to a truth that has defied the experts.

If you haven't read The Feminine Mystique, why not go ahead and do it now? It's a very good book: witty, readable, and even quite funny in places. Plus it placed #7 on the Human Events list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries, right below Das Kapital. What more can you ask for?

Kevin Drum 1:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Kevin Drum

FAT IS STILL BAD FOR YOU....The big health news today is that you don't have to worry about fat. Except, not really:

"Just switching to low-fat foods is not likely to yield much health benefit in most women," said Marcia Stefanick, a professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, chairwoman of the steering committee for the Women's Health Initiative study.

"Rather than trying to eat 'low-fat,' women should focus on reducing saturated fats and trans fats," the so-called bad fats, while maintaining their intake of "good" fats, such as vegetable, olive and fish oils.

Apparently this applies to men as well, but who cares? Cutting back on fat isn't all that hard. It's cutting back on saturated fat (mostly from meat) and trans fats (mostly from processed foods) that's hard, and if those things are still bad for you then nothing much has changed. I sure hope people don't read these stories and think "Yippee! I don't have to worry about what I eat anymore!"

Kevin Drum 12:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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February 7, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

AP TESTS: THUMBS UP OR THUMBS DOWN?....I recently received a scathing email from Paul Camp, a physics professor at Spelman College, that caused me to pay more attention than I usually would to the latest AP braggadocio from the College Board. Apparently the number of students taking AP tests is up from 405,000 in 2000 to 609,000 in 2005, and the number getting a passing score on at least one test is up from 260,000 to 378,000.

This seems like good news, but Professor Camp begs to differ:

AP sucks Moon rocks.

It is the very apotheosis of "a mile wide and an inch deep." They cover everything in the mighty Giancoli tome that sits unread on my bookshelf, all 1500 pages of it. They have seen not only Newtonian mechanics but also optics, sound, electromagnetic theory, Maxwell's equations, special relativity, quantum mechanics and even AC circuits. They don't understand any of it, but they've seen it all. They come into my class thinking, by and large, that objects move due to the force of their motion and cease moving when that force has all been used up; that tables do not prevent things from falling by exerting a force but by simply being in the way, blocking the natural motion; that when a tossed coin reaches the top of its flight, the force of gravity and the force of its motion are balanced; that opposite charges are attracted magnetically; and I could rant on for a while.

He doesn't think much more highly of AP math, either.

Anyway, this makes me curious. I have lots of readers who teach at the high school and college level and I'm wondering what they think about this. Are AP tests (and AP classes) all they're cracked up to be? Or are there lots of you who grit your teeth but secretly agree with my correspondent? And is this just a physics thing, or do history and lit teachers have the same complaint? Comments are open for both science-y types and liberal arts-ish types.

Kevin Drum 9:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (138)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLINDED BY SCIENCE....George Deutsch, a 24-year old former intern with the Bush/Cheney campaign, is the guy who instructed a NASA web designer to add the word "theory" to every reference to the Big Bang:

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

I'm happy to report that the top Google result for "George Deutsch" is now this post at World O'Crap, which documents Mr. Deutsch's youthful adventures in journalism at Texas A&M. Enjoy.

Kevin Drum 5:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (202)

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By: Kevin Drum

TAXES AND GROWTH....Captain Ed thinks E.J. Dionne slipped up today when he claimed that George Bush's 1990 tax increase helped to "set off a decade of fiscal responsibility and exceptional economic growth":

Dionne leaves out two important points. The first fact omitted is that the tax increase in 1990 resulted in a sudden recession....In fact, the increased rates flattened tax receipts; it did not result in any significant increase to the Treasury.

That's a remarkable thing, isn't it? A tax increase signed in November was apparently the cause of a recession that had started four months earlier. Somebody tell Einstein.

In fact, Dionne is correct. Bush Sr's tax increase came after the 1990 recession had already started, and it was the recession that pushed down tax receipts. When the recession ended, Bush's tax increase helped drive up revenue. Bill Clinton's subsequent 1993 tax increase drove up revenue even further, and that, combined with a good economy and some fiscal discipline, finally resulted in a balanced budget five years later.

Tax increases make tax receipts go up and tax cuts make them go down relative to where receipts would be if no action had been taken, of course. The effect isn't obvious if you increase taxes during a recession or cut them during an expansion, but it's true nonetheless. Remember: we didn't grow our way out of the Reagan tax cut of 1981. We taxed our way out of it.

Kevin Drum 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (197)

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By: Zachary Roth

PATENTLY ABSURD....There's been a lot of concern lately about the prospect that the BlackBerry might soon be brought down by a "patent troll" in this case, a small Virginia company, NTP, which holds a patent on wireless email technology and is now suing RIM, the BlackBerry's maker, after it refused to pay NTP a licensing fee.

This Slate piece does a good job of capturing the issues in play, but I'd argue with its contention that the problem is confined to the software industry. In fact, over-broad and possibly invalid patents stifle innovation in a range of fields, and the negative human consequences in areas like bio-technology are more immediate, and perhaps more damaging, than in software.

Take breast cancer research. As we reported in the Monthly last year, one company, Myriad Genetics, holds a patent on the study of a gene, BRCA1 known to cause breast cancer. Women who want to get tested for the gene have to go thru Myriad, and pay a much higher price for the test thanks to Myriad's monopoly. Worse, researchers trying to create a better test, one that could more accurately identify BRCA1, routinely receive cease and desist letters from Myriad's lawyers. One scientist at U Penn told me she'd moved on to other projects thanks to Myriad constantly hassling her.

Of course, without the incentive of a patent, companies like Myriad wouldn't conduct life-saving research. But in fact, a consortium of scientists from across the world was working to sequence BRCA1. Myriad's founder, Mark Skolnick was part of that group, and he used the group's work as a foundation before crossing the final hurdle himself. No one doubts that, absent Skolnick's work, the consortium would have got there soon afterwards.

In other words, a crucial area of breast cancer research is now effectively closed off to all but one for-profit company, despite the fact that their "invention" would surely have soon been developed without them. And just as with software patents, at the root of the problem is a patent system that makes patents too easy to acquire and gives patent-holders overly broad rights. Tell me how that promotes innovation again.

Zachary Roth 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Kevin Drum

FISA AND THE COURTS....Matt Yglesias asks a question about the Bush administration and the FISA act, which sets the rules for domestic wiretapping:

Beneath all the smokescreens what they're really trying to say is that they think FISA is unconstitutional, so they ought to be allowed to violate it. What I can't understand is why they won't just say so and see if they can get a court to agree. Are the legal arguments here so terrible that there's no chance even the new, Alito-ified court won't agree?

Yesterday at The Corner, Andy McCarthy offered up his explanation for why Bush hasn't and shouldn't invite a court test:

It is the President, not the Judiciary, which is supreme in matters of foreign intelligence collection and national security. It is, moreover, wartime. It is the President in our system who makes the ultimate judgment about what must be done to protect the public from foreign threats even in peacetime. It would not be proper constitutionally for the President to delegate that prerogative to another branch. Thus, if the FISA Court reviews the NSA program and opine against it, what is the President supposed to do? Discontinue a program that provides an early warning system against what could be a devastating attack? That is a call we elected him to make the FISA court has no place making such judgments.

Got that? Even in peacetime, the president is absolutely sovereign when he decides that his actions are required to protect the public from foreign threats. Once he's made that decision, whether secretly or not, Congress and the courts have no say in the matter. None.

It's breathtaking, isn't it? And yet, this is the kind of argument the president's supporters are increasingly driven to make. It's a pretty good indication that they don't have anything serious left in their bag.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW ARE WE DOING?....Dan Drezner points to an interesting recent poll that lets us know just who our friends really are. First the good news:

With Iran included in this years poll, it has displaced the US as the nation with the most countries giving it a negative rating.

The Iranians are really disliked, and I imagine that their combination of nuclear instransigence and Denmark-baiting in recent weeks has only made things worse for them.

Since I'm an American, though, I'm more interested in world views of the U.S. and while Iran may be doing even worse than us, the news on the home front isn't exactly good:

The poll shows that the US has lost ground in some key allied countries. Among the 20 nations polled in 2004 as well as this year, on average positive ratings have dropped five points; ratings have significantly declined in 10 of these tracking countries (including the US) while significantly improving in only five.

At least they like us in Poland and the Philippines. More significantly, our approval rating is quite high in Afghanistan, which is genuinely good news. If only we could do as well in Iraq.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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February 6, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

NSA HEARINGS, DAY 1....Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wins today's chutzpah award for his defense of the NSA's domestic spying program:

As for news accounts about the domestic eavesdropping, Mr. Gonzales said, they have been "in almost every case, in one way or another, misinformed, confused or wrong."

Needless to say, Gonzales can clear that up anytime he wants to. All he has to do is tell us in general terms what criteria the NSA uses to decide which U.S. citizens to listen in on so we can all get it straight.

I'm also more tired than you can imagine of his constant invocation of presidents from Washington to Roosevelt who authorized warrantless surveillance in wartime. All of that happened before FISA was passed in 1978 and is completely meaningless. And he knows it.

Kevin Drum 5:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (283)

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By: Kevin Drum

BAD NEWS FROM IRAQ....Tim Lambert passes along a dispiriting story from Iraq. Apparently we're repairing Iraq's electric generating plants, but doing it so badly that it's not doing any good. Says an engineer about a repair project at the Qudas power plant near Baghdad, "We installed a third of a billion dollars' worth of combustion turbines that can't be fueled." The fault for the debacle appears to be widely spread.

Kevin Drum 3:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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By: Kevin Drum

RICH STATE, POOR STATE....For the wonkish among us, Brendan Nyhan points to an interesting academic paper published last year that provides a bit more detail about the voting patterns of rich and poor. It turns out that the rich are different from you and me, but they're more different in poor red states than in rich blue ones.

The conclusion of the paper is fairly simple: in poor states, income is a major predictor of whether you vote for Republicans or Democrats. In Mississippi, for example, the rich are far more likely than the poor to vote for Republican presidential candidates. But just the opposite is true in high-income states. There, although the rich are still more likely to vote for Republicans, the difference is quite small.

The chart above shows how clear this distinction is, and the authors report that it's become clearer over time. It's rare to get such a clean regression line in social science data like this, which makes their results pretty provocative.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this or how to take advantage of it, but knowledge is power, right? Maybe someone smarter than me will figure out what this means and how to use it.

UPDATE: Andrew Gelman, one of the co-authors of the paper, writes on his blog that although the pattern they noticed really is striking, the regression line isn't quite as clean as I'm making it out to be. Apparently its cleanliness is partly an artifact of the model they used. He also has another picture for you to look at.

Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (129)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALLBAUGH AND BROWN AT FEMA....Russ Baker has a very long investigative report over at the Real News Project about our old friends Joe Allbaugh and Michael Brown. Allbaugh, as you recall, was appointed head of FEMA by George Bush in 2001 and was responsible for bringing his buddy Brown on board to eventually become FEMA's director when Allbaugh quit.

The following paragraph is certainly not the most important part of Baker's story, but it's my favorite. The time is 2001, and Allbaugh has just taken over from James Lee Witt, Bill Clinton's FEMA director:

Allbaugh soon embarked on a Nixonian purge. Acting upon his orders, a reluctant inspector general launched a series of internal investigations, looking at everything undertaken by the Witt administration, including Witts own travel expenses. Nothing of note was found, and on several occasions the I.G. proclaimed his job done, only to be told to keep looking. Allbaugh launched his longest investigation into a headdress that used to hang on James Lee Witts wall, a token of appreciation from a Native American tribe in recognition of his efforts following the Oklahoma City bombing. Someone said it might contain feathers from the protected bald eagle a federal offense but the probe, which even involved the F.B.I., fizzled when they turned out to be dyed chicken feathers.

Brings back memories, doesn't it?

The bulk of the story is about the rise of both Allbaugh and Brown, and what kind of relationship they really had prior to coming to Washington DC as part of the Bush administration. Fascinating stuff.

The full story is here. An executive summary is here.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NSA AND YOU....The Washington Post's big story on Sunday about the NSA's domestic spying program provides answers to some questions and clues about others. Here's a Q&A style roundup using excerpts from the story:

Q: How many serious suspects has the program identified?
A: Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls.

Q: How many Americans has the NSA listened in on to identify those suspects?
A: Two knowledgeable sources placed that number in the thousands; one of them, more specific, said about 5,000.

Q: How many calls does the NSA vacuum up in order to identify those thousands of targets?
A: The program has touched many more Americans than that. Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.

Successive stages of filtering grow more intrusive as artificial intelligence systems rank voice and data traffic in order of likeliest interest to human analysts. But intelligence officers, who test the computer judgments by listening initially to brief fragments of conversation, "wash out" most of the leads within days or weeks.

Q: What information is the NSA collecting in order to decide whose conversations to listen to?
A: "We debated a lot of issues involving the 'metadata,' " one government lawyer said. Valuable for analyzing calling patterns, the metadata for telephone calls identify their origin, destination, duration and time. E-mail headers carry much the same information, along with the numeric address of each network switch through which a message has passed....the FISA court, as some lawyers saw it, had no explicit jurisdiction over wholesale collection of records that do not include the content of communications.

Q: Really? The NSA's computers aren't data mining the actual contents of conversations?
A: For years, including in public testimony by [General Michael Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence], the agency has acknowledged use of automated equipment to analyze the contents and guide analysts to the most important ones. According to one knowledgeable source, the warrantless program also uses those methods.

Q: So is the NSA targeting people who are found in al-Qaeda rolodexes? Or what?
A: Machine selection would be simple if the typical U.S. eavesdropping subject took part in direct calls to or from the "phone numbers of known al Qaeda" terrorists, the only criterion Bush has mentioned. That is unusual. The NSA more commonly looks for less-obvious clues in the "terabytes of speech, text, and image data" that its global operations collect each day, according to an unclassified report by the National Science Foundation soliciting research on behalf of U.S. intelligence.

Q: Is the program legal?
A: The minimum legal definition of probable cause, said a government official who has studied the program closely, is that evidence used to support eavesdropping ought to turn out to be "right for one out of every two guys at least."....Michael J. Woods, who was chief of the FBI's national security law unit until 2002, said in an e-mail interview that even using the lesser standard of a "reasonable basis" requires evidence "that would lead a prudent, appropriately experienced person" to believe the American is a terrorist agent. If a factor returned "a large number of false positives, I would have to conclude that the factor is not a sufficiently reliable indicator and thus would carry less (or no) weight."


I have to confess that after reading this story I'm not entirely sure how much new information it contains. It provides some figures about how many conversations are being intercepted and how many suspects have been identified, although even that's a little hazy since the program might have identified suspects beyond just those who earned themselves a domestic warrant. It also provides some confirmation of the "common channel" theory I blogged about earlier, which suggests that the NSA's data mining is focused more on metadata than on the content of domestic communications though one source suggests content is also being data mined.

Beyond that it's hard to say more. The article combines information specifically about the warrantless wiretap program with public information about general NSA capabilities in a way that's hard to tease apart. The most likely short explanation, I think, is that NSA has created patterns of possible terrorist activity and is actively mining communications metadata from domestic calls to find targets that fit those patterns. Data mining of the content of domestic calls may also be involved, though that's less clear. Feel free to shoot this guess down and provide your own speculation in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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February 5, 2006
By: Amy Sullivan

MO TOWN....I don't have much interest in this year's Super Bowl (being mostly a basketball and college football girl), but I have been curious to see how my (kind-of) hometown Detroit handles hosting duties. A few years ago, it seemed like the incentive of hosting both the MLB All-Star game and the Super Bowl within the same year would be enough to get the city (and perhaps the state) to embark on an Extreme Makeover. Sadly, Detroit has mostly dropped the ball, opting for short-term cosmetic changes without fixing some of the underlying problems that have made it America's third world city.

On the plus side, after an original musical line-up that inexplicably failed to include a single Motown star, Aretha Franklin sang the national anthem and Stevie Wonder is scheduled to join the halftime show.

For more on Detroit's missed opportunities, read this Slate piece that I wrote with a friend of mine who is an architect in Detroit.

UPDATE: Apparently Stevie Wonder sang as part of the pre-game entertainment. Meaning that the halftime show was a Motown-free performance by the showing-their-age-Rolling Stones. It boggles the mind--would a Nashville-based Super Bowl halftime show fail to showcase country musicians?

Amy Sullivan 7:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Jonathan Dworkin

HALABJA....The road from Sulaimania to Halabja passes through a region called the Shahrizur, which was once one of the great agricultural centers of Iraq. It makes for pleasant scenery, with broad grassy plains ringed by foothills and tall mountains in the distance. The towns along the road Arbat, Say Sayach, and Sirwan appear mere reservoirs of poverty, but to my Kurdish hosts each is a metropolis filled with acquaintances and family history.

PUK peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) operating in the Shahrizur were the chief target of Saddam Hussein's Baath regime during the Anfal Campaign of 1988. The campaign against them included multiple chemical weapons attacks, of which Halabja is only the most notorious. In part this is because the peshmerga and the Iranian Army occupied the town and allowed observers to record the atrocity. Victims in other towns were simply swept away by the Iraqi Army.

To speak meaningfully of what happened in the Shahrizur, first you must follow the shadow of American foreign policy. The 1975 Algiers Accord, endorsed by Henry Kissinger, settled the border (temporarily) between Iraq and Iran. Part of the agreement was a sudden and unexpected end of American and Iranian support for the peshmerga, an event that was the defining disaster for the Kurdish independence movement. The KDP collapsed and Mustafa Barzani, the nationalist leader, fled the country. The socialist PUK continued to fight, which is why the Baath regime disproportionately targetted the Shahrizur in the 80s.

Kissinger's name is a curse word in Kurdistan, and the Algiers Accord is the one topic that can cause sentiment to turn anti-American. In the arc of Kissinger's career a geographical list that includes Cambodia, Chile, and East Timor Kurdistan may not draw much attention. But the damage done to American credibility in this country was almost fatal, and all of this was done in the name of "realism."

In the Shahrizur the politics of the past mix with the poverty of the present. I am working with Dr. Ako, the healthcare administrator for the region, and our goal is to obtain clinical data about the population in Halabja. We hope to demonstrate an association between exposure to chemical weapons and ongoing disease, and we hope to better define the incidence of common diseases in the community. Because there are few publications on Halabja in the medical literature, even simple facts, like the incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), are unknown. Many other diseases are also reported, including malignancy, polycystic ovary syndrome, pulmonary fibrosis, and a wide range of opthomological and dermatological illness. But without data all of this is anecdotal.

The work in Halabja also illuminates one of the central differences between myself and my Kurdish colleagues. In New York research is a basic feature of medical education. In the wake of September 11th doctors enrolled 60,000 patients in prospective trials. Everything that happens to them will be recorded, and the information will be used to obtain resources for them as they age. In Kurdistan, by contrast, there is no research infrastructure. Medical education is antiquated, consisting of the memorization of long lists of syndromes. Skill sets like research that are essential parts of modern medical education have not yet entered the curriculum. The result is a group of intelligent, clinically skilled doctors who are ill-equipped to publish about their patient population. In Kurdistan this work seems a fantastic luxury, not a crucial piece of advocacy.

One thing that surprises me about Halabja is that it is still beautiful. Entire neighborhoods are rubble, but amongst the hills and mountains it retains its charm. This disconnect between the setting and the recent history makes it an emotionally taxing environment to work in. As I discuss my plans with the Kurdish doctors and nurses, all are friendly and eager to work with Americans. But as I think about the debate back at home, cynical and self-serving on both sides, I wonder how much more politics this place can survive.


Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. Other posts in this series:

February 5: Halabja
January 25: Kurds and Jews
January 18: At Home in the New Kurdistan
January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin 6:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FUTURE OF EMAIL?....From the New York Times today:

America Online and Yahoo, two of the world's largest providers of e-mail accounts, are about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered.

....AOL and Yahoo will still accept e-mail from senders who have not paid, but the paid messages will be given special treatment. On AOL, for example, they will go straight to users' main mailboxes, and will not have to pass the gantlet of spam filters that could divert them to a junk-mail folder or strip them of images and Web links.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer isn't an easy one.

AOL and Yahoo actually announced this program several months ago. It's an alliance with Goodmail Systems and its operation is pretty simple: First, companies sign up with Goodmail, which makes sure the company is a legitimate enterprise that has agreed to follow a set of good conduct rules. Goodmail then embeds a cryptographically-secure token in all the company's email that tells AOL/Yahoo (and the recipient of the email) that the message is a genuine one.

The downside, of course, is that if you don't pay for this service, then you're running a risk that your email will get sucked into AOL's spam filters and never delivered. The potential for abuse is pretty obvious: pay up or risk email oblivion.

On the other hand, I never even look at email from my bank or from PayPal, even if it gets through my spam filters. This means that neither of these companies has a way of communicating with me via email. This is a problem that really does beg for a solution of some kind, and Goodmail just might be it.

On the third hand, this may also turn out to be yet another front in the "network neutrality" war. Will everyone have equal access to the internet in the future, or will the rich and powerful get preferred treatment in the form of faster downloads, quicker connections, and fewer delays, while the rest of us plod along in increasing frustration? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

EVENING ROUNDUP....I'm sure there will be other, more comprehensive tributes in the months to come, but of the Betty Friedan obituaries in the major newspapers today, I think Elaine Woo's in the LA Times is the best.

In a somehow related-and-yet-not vein, the Guardian has a fascinating little story about Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I always sort of wondered what happened to her, and now I know. Sort of.

And in an entirely unrelated vein, a reader wants to know what my serious take is on the Danish cartoon affair. Here it is: I think the press has an absolute right to print those cartoons. But you knew that already.

Finally, you should certainly read this article in the Washington Post about the NSA's domestic spying program. I've got other stuff to do tonight, but I'll probably have more to say about it in the morning.

Kevin Drum 12:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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February 4, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HOW LIKELY IS A MILITARY STRIKE AGAINST IRAN?....I was up in Los Angeles today, and along with a dozen other bloggers I spent about an hour chatting with Wes Clark, who was in town for a political rally. Clark had some provocative things to say about Iran and its nuclear program, especially in light of today's news that the IAEA has reported Iran to the UN Security Council because of concerns that they're developing nuclear weapons.

Here's what he said. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which suggests that Iran's research sites are too widespread to be destroyed via bombing, Clark believes that a military strike on Iran could wipe out its nuclear program very effectively indeed. He figures that a 14-day bombing campaign plus a few special-ops missions which he described in some detail would pretty much put them out of business. What's more, he also seems to believe that an operation like this is very much under active consideration within the White House and the Pentagon.

I have no idea what his sources are for this, of course, so take it for what it's worth. However, it does suggest that Democrats ought to figure out now what they think about Iran. After all, we've got the Ken Pollack book, we've got the referral to the Security Council, we've got the slam dunk intelligence, and we've got the lunatic leader screaming insults at the United States. Remember what happened the last time all the stars aligned like that?

So: What would be the Democratic response if (a) Bush asked for an authorization of force against Iran or (b) simply launched an assault without asking Congress? The chances of this coming up as an issue this year are strong enough that it would be foolish not to be prepared to deal with it.

UPDATE: Apparently some commenters are reading more into this than is there. For the record: Clark didn't say he thought a military strike against Iran was a good idea. He just said it was entirely feasible and that the White House considers it a serious option.

Kevin Drum 8:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (634)

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By: Paul Glastris

CRAMMING SCIENCE...Kevin has noted the weird spectacle of President Bush becoming fascinated with science and technology even as his government continues to crush various scientific studies and breakthroughs that run counter to the agenda of his base. The Washington Posts Peter Baker adds more material for those of us trying to divine how, when, and why the president became interested in the decline of Americas scientific and technological competitiveness that has happened on his watch.

Aides said Bush became interested in promoting [his American Competitive Initiative] after a pile of reports stacked up on his desk lamenting the erosion in the U.S. technological advantage globally. The most influential came out in October, issued by a National Academies committee headed by retired Lockheed Martin Corp. chairman Norman R. Augustine. The report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," recommended a dramatic boost in research funding and science education.

Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) followed up by meeting with Bush at the White House in mid-December, urging him to meet the Augustine challenge. Bush agreed, and he outlined a $136 billion, 10-year plan in the State of the Union to double research spending on physical sciences, train more science and math teachers and enact a permanent research and development tax credit.

I love the bit about the reports stacking up on Bushs desk and the intervention by the senators that was apparently necessary to get him to focus. But aside from the frat-guy-who-skipped-class-now-cramming-for-the-exam-the-night-before quality of Bush's personality, there's more to be said about why, until now, the White House has ignored alarming signs of America's relative decline in science and economic innovation. A while back, The Washington Monthly's Nick Thompson provided one important answer: Bush thumbs his nose at science because scientists don't vote Republican. If, in his beleaguered state, the president has changed his political calculation, that's a good thing for America. We shall see.

Paul Glastris 5:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH IGNORES SCIENTISTS....FILM AT 11....I know this will come as a shock, but a group of scientists claimed yesterday that the Bush administration is ignoring their recommendations and twisting their research results:

In an unprecedented action, the Environmental Protection Agency's own scientific panel on Friday challenged the agency's proposed public health standards governing soot and dust.

....Some panel members called the administrator's actions "egregious" and said his proposals "twisted" or "misrepresented" their recommendations.

....Cal/EPA's air pollution epidemiology chief, Bart Ostro, charged during the teleconference that the EPA had incorporated "last-minute opinions and edits" by the White House Office of Management and Budget that "circumvented the entire peer review process."

He said research that he and others had conducted also had been misrepresented in the EPA's lengthy justification for the proposed new standards.

In an interview later, Ostro said he was referring to marked-up drafts of Johnson's proposals that showed changes by the White House budget office and language that was "very close to some of the letters written by some of the trade associations."

Sigh. I hardly even know what to say about stuff like this anymore. Of course the language was
"very close" to letters written by trade associations. The modern Republican Party doesn't do policy anymore, they just farm it out to K Street.

Maybe Chris Mooney will follow up on this later. It's his beat, after all.

Kevin Drum 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Kevin Drum

HIGH WAGES: GOOD OR BAD?....Here's the headline the LA Times copy desk put on Bill Sing's article about the economy today:

Falling Jobless Rate Boosts Wages but Fuels Concern on Prices and Profits

Good for them. Instead of mindlessly repeating the usual "inflation fears" trope that's common to most stories about employment gains, Sing's story at least discusses both the positive and negative aspects of low unemployment. It was still focused a little too heavily on the negative, I thought, but it's a start.

Kevin Drum 11:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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By: Kevin Drum

SWITCHGRASS FOLLOWUP....So where did the president's "switchgrass" reference in Tuesday's State of the Union address come from? David Roberts at Grist writes:

You may be interested in what David Bransby, professor of energy crops at Auburn University, said Wednesday on NPR's All Things Considered. He has called and emailed regularly with the office of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). One of the last emails claimed, in Bransby's words, that switchgrass "was a last minute inclusion in the speech, and it was Senator Sessions that helped get it into there." Sessions' spokesflack later confirmed that Sessions had a heart-to-heart with Al Hubbard, the chairman of Bush's National Economic Council, last Friday.

There you have it. Apparently the path was Sessions to Hubbard to Bush. Too bad there were no actual scientists involved.

Kevin Drum 11:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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February 3, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

SWITCHGRASS AND ETHANOL....Aside from "human-animal hybrids," the word that sprang out of nowhere for most people in this week's State of the Union address was probably "switchgrass." But as Sam Jaffe wrote for us in 2004, there are two new technologies that promise to make ethanol production far cheaper and more efficient than it is today. One of those technologies is a genetically-engineered microbe that allows us to make ethanol from more sources than just corn:

Most intriguing of all is switchgrass, a hardy North American plant that can be raised without irrigation and harvested with a low-labor process similar to mowing the lawn. In other words, it requires very little energy to bring to harvest compared with ethanol's traditional corn. According to Cornell's [David] Pimentel, roughly 15 percent of the North American continent consists of land that is unsuitable for food farming but workable for switchgrass cultivation. Given the typical energy yield of switchgrass, a rough calculation indicates that if all that land were planted with switchgrass, we could replace every single gallon of gas consumed in the United States with a gallon of inexpensive, domestically produced, and more environmentally-friendly cellulosic ethanol.

Fine. But how do we get automakers to sell cars that can run on "flex-fuel" combinations of ethanol and gasoline? And how do we get gas stations to sell the stuff? From our friends on the right comes one possible answer: just force them to do it. Robert Zubrin writes in The American Enterprise:

This year, Detroit will offer some two dozen models of standard cars with a flex-fuel option available for purchase. The engineering difference is in one sensor and a computer chip that controls the fuel-air mixture, and the employment of a corrosion-resistant fuel system. The difference in price from standard units ranges from $100 to $800.

....The only sticking point is the non-availability of high alcohol fuel mixes at the pump. Filling stations dont want to dedicate space to a fuel mix used only by 1 percent of all cars. And consumers are not interested in buying vehicles for which the preferred fuel mix is unavailable.

This chicken-and-egg problem can be readily resolved by legislation. One major country has already done so. In 2003, Brazilian lawmakers mandated a transition to [flex-fuel vehicles]....By 2007, 80 percent of all new vehicles sold in Brazil are expected to be FFVs, producing significant fuel savings to consumers, a boost to local agriculture, and a massive benefit to the countrys foreign trade balance.

There's more in both articles. Jaffe thinks ethanol could be used to directly power hydrogen fuel cells, for example, while Zubrin dismisses hydrogen as a chimera and thinks we should look to methanol rather than ethanol for the bulk of our needs, since methanol can be produced using coal, something we have in abundance. The drawback of methanol made from coal, however, is that it does nothing for global warming. Alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel are far more environmentally friendly.

I suspect that both authors have overstated the case for their preferred alternative, but both are worth reading nonetheless. I don't know if George Bush loves switchgrass because he got a visit from the switchgrass lobby or because someone just whispered the word in his ear, but who cares? If the left loves ethanol for environmental reasons and the right loves it so we don't have to buy so much oil from Saudi Arabia, maybe there's a deal to be made.

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By: Kevin Drum

INVADING IRAQ....Yesterday I noticed a story in the Guardian about yet another leaked memo from Downing Street regarding the invasion of Iraq:

A memo of a two-hour meeting between the two leaders at the White House on January 31 2003 nearly two months before the invasion reveals that Mr Bush made it clear the US intended to invade whether or not there was a second UN resolution and even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons programme.

"The diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning", the president told Mr Blair. The prime minister is said to have raised no objection. He is quoted as saying he was "solidly with the president and ready to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam".

This is apparently getting more attention today, but I'm not quite sure I get what the fuss is about. Surely this isn't news to anyone, is it? Of course Bush was planning to invade no matter what.

On the other hand, the U.S. plan to paint a spy plane in UN colors and hope Saddam would shoot it down now that's comedy gold. Ten bucks says it was Cheney's idea.

Kevin Drum 4:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (161)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE BUDGET FLIM-FLAMMERY....Today's news about the latest budget request for the Iraq war is actually sort of peculiar:

The White House said Thursday that it planned to ask Congress for an additional $70 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving the cost of military operations in the two countries to $120 billion this year....The cost of military operations in 2006 is $35 billion higher than what Congress had estimated a few months ago the Defense Department would need this year.

More money I understand. But $35 billion more than expected? What's up with that? There are at least two likely explanations:

As in previous years, the supplemental budget request also will ask Congress to pay for programs that are not directly related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kaplan said part of the supplemental funding he did not say how much would go toward the Army's effort to convert its forces into smaller, more deployable combat units.

Some budget experts have criticized the practice of including in "emergency" spending bills the costs of programs not directly tied to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which lobbies for balanced budgets, said the Pentagon might intentionally be seeking more money than it needed for this year so that next year's funding request would look small by comparison.

That sounds right to me. Some of the extra money is just a convenient way to inflate the normal Pentagon budget without getting too much pushback from Congress (it's an emergency!), and some is just for show so that next year's request will look smaller. Smoke and mirrors, baby, smoke and mirrors.

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY DANEBROGGING....I fully realize that I should be taking this more seriously it involves issues of free speech, national sovereignty, gratuitous religious insults, Islamic radicalism, etc. etc. but it's hard. I mean, just look at whose flag they're burning in the Middle East right now: Denmark's.

Cuddly little Denmark! Home of Hans Christian Andersen, delicious pastry, and tasteful furniture. Home of Tivoli and the Little Mermaid. Denmark!

If there's a lesson to be learned here and I assure you there won't be it's that Arabs rather obviously don't hate America any more than any other country. We just provide them with more opportunity to show it. If the Danes would just step up to the plate more often, maybe we could sneak our troops home from Iraq and no one would notice.

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By: Kevin Drum

COMPETITION....Speaking of Medicare prescription drugs, here's a little tidbit that somehow didn't make its way into the administration's progress report:

The new Medicare drug benefit will give drug companies up to $2 billion in extra profits this year because they're no longer required to pay rebates on drugs bought by the government for the elderly poor.

....The boost in profits comes from a shift in the drug coverage of 6.4 million poor and elderly people from Medicaid to the new Medicare drug benefit. Unlike Medicaid, which requires drug companies to charge their lowest or "best price" for medications, the Medicare program relies on competition among private drug plans to keep prices low. By eliminating the need to discount drugs for the government, the industry can now pocket the savings.

"The net effect over 10 years is probably closer to $40 billion in extra profit," said Stephen Schondelmeyer, a pharmaceutical economics professor at the University of Minnesota.

This is no surprise, of course. After all, you don't think the pharmaceutical industry would have supported the bill if they really thought "competition" would drive down prices, do you?

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By: Kevin Drum

SMOKE AND MIRRORS AT HHS....Good news, campers! The Department of Health and Human Services says the Medicare prescription plan is coming in under budget!

When the program was being developed, before we had any actual experience with the cost of drug coverage, it was estimated that the Part D benefit would cost about $700 billion in its first ten years. But as plans compete for seniors business, they are driving the costs of prescriptions down. According to our latest estimates, the costs of the Medicare prescription drug benefit are significantly less than expected.

The federal government now projects the cost to be about 20 percent less per person in 2006. Over the next five years, payments are now projected to be more than 10 percent lower than first estimated. That is a significant savings for taxpayers.

Well. That is good news, isn't it? Competition is certainly a wonderful thing.

And yet....something is niggling at me. You see, back when the program was being developed, HHS actually estimated it would cost $400 billion, not $700 billion. As we later learned, this was just a flat out lie, designed to fool Congress into voting for it. Shortly after the bill passed, HHS admitted that its chief actuary had actually estimated a cost of $500-600 billion but had been forbidden from revealing this to anyone. Then, last year, they upped the estimate again to $720 billion. So assuming that the 10% "savings" applies to the entire 10-year budgeting period, it means HHS is now estimating a cost of $650 billion, which is actually far higher than either of the estimates from two years ago.

It's also worth noting that HHS has come up with this alleged 10% savings after a grand total of one month of experience with the program. In fact, it comes from a document called "The Secretary's One Month Progress Report on the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit." So take this news with a great big shaker of salt.

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February 2, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

A TALE OF TWO STORIES....Andrew Sabl notes two stories in the New York Times today:

One story potentially affects people with time on their hands and a penchant for political dissent. The other affects the kind of person who will finally have to give up his own apartment and become an inmate in a nursing home, or who will now have to choose between treating her diabetes and buying enough peanut butter for her toddler's lunch.

Andrew suggests that the liberal blogosphere should spend more time on the second story and less on the first. I don't think that's going to happen, but he's got a point.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE GENDER GAP, REVISITED....A couple of weeks ago I linked to a New Republic article by Richard Whitmire in which he investigated gender differences in school achievement and concluded that the reason more girls go to college than boys is because girls have way better reading skills. In Slate today, Ann Hulbert responds:

Over the next two decades [since 1980], as women continued to get college degrees in ever greater numbers, there's evidence to suggest that girls' gains at the pre-college level weren't as striking and don't appear to have been at the expense of boys....The trend is relative stability for all, rather than marked mobility for either gender. Boys' reading scores have declined somewhat over the past decade, but they were lower than girls' from the start; girls' scores have barely budged.

Hulbert has a point, but she also glosses over some very real differences. The chart on the right shows the NAEP data she relies on for her conclusion (see page 28 in this report for a bigger version), and although the trendlines are indeed pretty stable, it's worth noting that NAEP test results are extremely sensitive: 10 points is roughly equal to one grade level. This means that in 1985, 17-year-old girls were about one grade level ahead of boys in reading and in 2001 they were about 1.3 grade levels ahead. That's a pretty sizable difference, and I think Hulbert is wrong to dismiss it so casually.

Overall, I'm inclined to agree with Hulbert that viewing educational differences through a gender lens has limited utility, regardless of whether those differences are caused by biology, culture, or anything else. It's not the biggest problem on our plate, and it's not at all clear that gender-specific teaching styles would accomplish very much anyway. Still, facts are facts: high school girls read at a significantly higher level than high school boys, and as other barriers against women have dropped over the years, it should hardly come as a surprise that this advantage has transformed itself into higher college graduation rates. Whether it's our biggest problem or not, it's probably one worth paying attention to.

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By: Kevin Drum

VOTING THE GOP WAY....From Roll Call:

House Republicans are taking a mulligan on the first ballot for Majority Leader. The first count showed more votes cast than Republicans present at the Conference meeting.

Insert your own joke here. I can't decide which one to use. Via Shakespeare's Sister.

UPDATE: Apparently they've now decided that John Boehner won.

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By: Kevin Drum

PROBABLE CAUSE....I was reading Richard Posner's article in the New Republic this morning not because I was interested in his judicial philosophy, but because I was interested in what he had to say about the NSA's domestic spying program. Here's the relevant paragraph:

Suppose a phone number in the United States is discovered on a rolodex in an Al Qaeda hideout in Yemen. Wouldn't you want the NSA to intercept all calls, especially international, to or from that U.S. number and scrutinize them for suspicious content? Yet the mere fact that a suspected or even a known terrorist has a U.S. phone number in his possession would not create probable cause to believe the owner of that phone also a terrorist; probably most phone conversations of terrorists are not with other terrorists. The government can't get a FISA warrant just to find out whether someone is a terrorist, though that's what it most needs to know.

Does this sound right? Being on a terrorist's speed dial actually strikes me as a pretty good example of probable cause, especially since the FISA court appears to have a fairly expansive view of what constitutes probable cause. But are al-Qaeda rolodexes really a good example anyway? Since the NSA program started up very quickly after 9/11, I doubt that it's based on physical evidence from Yemeni caves, which is probably fairly uncommon. It's far more likely that it's based on actual communications intercepts of some kind. In that vein, here's what I've been assuming all along about how FISA warrants work in real life:

  • Al-Qaeda suspect in Yemen calls someone in Pakistan. No problem. We can intercept without a warrant.

  • Al-Qaeda suspect in Yemen calls Mr. X in Chicago. Again, no problem. The FISA court would issue a warrant without a fuss.

  • NSA wants to tap Mr. X's phone to find out who else he's talking to. Since Mr. X is known to have talked to an al-Qaeda suspect in Yemen, this is probable cause and the FISA court would issue a warrant. At a minimum, the court would certainly issue a warrant if the previous conversation had been even remotely suspicious.

    Note that I'm assuming there's a considerable difference between a national security investigation and, say, a mafia investigation. If Mr. X gets a call from a suspected mob boss, there's a pretty good chance that Mr. X is an innocent party just an ordinary butcher, baker, or flower delivery guy. But if Mr. X gets a call from a cave in Yemen, there's a pretty good chance he's not an innocent party. Unlike the mob example, phone calls from Yemeni terrorists would probably cause a judge to agree that there's probable cause to believe that Mr. X might be an affiliate of a terrorist organization.

In other words, I'm working under the assumption that the FISA court would consider it "probable cause" that a U.S. citizen is an agent of al-Qaeda if that citizen is known to have communicated with al-Qaeda suspects overseas. A warrant against such a person would be issued routinely.

However, the NSA's secret program is directed solely at U.S. citizens whom the government doesn't have probable cause to believe are agents of al-Qaeda. This means the evidence they do have isn't phone calls or rolodexes. It's something much fuzzier, something that even a notoriously compliant, post-9/11 FISA court wouldn't consider adequate as probable cause. Perhaps something like this.

Of course, these are just assumptions on my part, since I don't know the inner workings of the FISA court or the legal definition of probable cause in international terrorist investigations. That's why I'm throwing them out for comment. Question: Do they sound reasonable? Or am I overlooking something significant?

Kevin Drum 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

POSNER'S LAW....Richard Posner is normally considered to be a conservative judge. Am I wrong, then, to be surprised by this?

The way I approach a case as a judge maybe you think it heresy is first to ask myself what would be a reasonable, sensible result, as a lay person would understand it, and then, having answered that question, to ask whether that result is blocked by clear constitutional or statutory text, governing precedent, or any other conventional limitation on judicial discretion.

Don't get me wrong. As a casual, one-sentence summary of judicial philosophy, this strikes me as pretty reasonable. But is it a conservative philosophy? After all, Posner basically suggests that first he figures out what he wants to do and then he takes a look at the law to see if he can justify his personal preference which makes it pretty obvious that his reading of the law is going to be heavily colored by his initial instinct about what decision he wants to hand down. I thought that was the kind of thing that us liberals were always being accused of doing?

UPDATE: Conservative's conservative Stephen Bainbridge says Posner's no conservative.

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By: Kevin Drum

FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL....The Bush administration's energy policy:

George Bush, Tuesday: "...new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025."

Wednesday: "One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally....'This was purely an example,' Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said."

George Bush, later on Wednesday: "Bush expressed hope, as he did in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, for cutting oil imports from the Mideast. 'I believe in a relatively quick period of time, within my lifetime, we'll be able to reduce if not end dependence on Middle Eastern oil....I meant what I said last night, that America's addiction to oil is bad for this country.'"

Which is it, guys? Are we trying to cut back on Middle Eastern oil or aren't we?

Kevin Drum 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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February 1, 2006
By: Christina Larson

METAPHORICALLY SPEAKING .... After a conference call with Bush's energy secretary, Knight Ridder's Kevin G. Hall reports:

One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally.

UPDATE: Cross your fingers that Knight Ridder's Washington bureau survives its own corporate storm. This isn't the first bluff their reporters have called. (See also: WMDs) Christina Larson 11:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Christina Larson

SAUDI ARABIA OR VENEZUELA? .... Even if alternative-energy production is greatly expanded, and even if prices for, say, ethanol fuels become truly competitive, would that necessarily mean a reduction in oil imports from the Middle East? If Venezuelan or Mexican or Canadian oil remains more expensive to extract than Saudi Arabian oil, we would simply import less from those countries.

As Department of Energy analyst Anthony Radich told Reuters Tom Doggett, because the Middle East generally produces oil more cheaply than other regions barring some (government) policy that explicitly discourages oil imports, even if we do find cheaper ways to produce cellulose ethanol, the imports from the Middle East are among the last to go. Christina Larson 9:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....A modern day homage to Proust?

His room was full of two things, mainly: dozens of old socks, that had been worn a few dozen times (without ever seeing a detergent), could stand up largely by themselves, and were yellow at the edges; and countless old, empty Tab cans, some crushed, others stagnant, a few actually placed in an orderly pile, ready for consumption....The unique aroma of dried-up Tab cans and encrusted foot odor has never quite left my consciousness since.

I think I'll stick with tea and madeleines instead, thank you very much.

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By: Kevin Drum

15 SECONDS OF FAME TIMES TEN MILLION....The Washington Post has a story today about the finalists in the DC Metro's contest to be the new and improved disembodied voice that says "The doors are opening. Please stand back so that customers may exit the train. When boarding, please move to the center of the car."

You can hear all ten finalists here. Unrequited Narcissism has appropriate commentary here.

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIENDLY FIRE....National Review provides us with a dictionary-worthy example of how to damn with faint praise:

Whether you love or loath George W. Bush, you can not deny that he has learned how to read a teleprompter.

OK, fine. He can read a teleprompter. Happy?

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By: Kevin Drum

PAGING WOODWARD AND BERNSTEIN....Patrick Fitzgerald, in a letter to Scooter Libby's lawyers, makes this bland assertion:

We have learned that not all email of the Office of Vice President and the Executive Office of President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through the normal archiving process on the White House computer system.

Missing emails from both the VP's office and the president's office? For "certain periods in 2003"? That certainly deserves some followup, doesn't it?

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By: Kevin Drum

BASIC RESEARCH....Extending the R&D credit may have been just a sop to his corporate pals, but George Bush's call in last night's SOTU to increase spending on basic research and encourage more kids to take AP math and science courses was a good idea. A small idea, to be sure, but at least he's acknowledging that declining interest in math and science and reduced R&D funding are problems that needs attention though they're problems partly of his own making since Bush's most recent budget cut funding for science and assigned most of what research funding remained to applied research. As Ben Wallace-Wells pointed out in the Washington Monthly last year:

For decades, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of its GDP devoted to scientific research; now, we've dropped behind Japan, Korea, Israel, Sweden, and Finland. The number of scientific papers published by Americans peaked in 1992 and has fallen 10 percent; a decade ago, the United States led the world in scientific publications, but now it trails Europe. For two centuries, a higher proportion of Americans had gone to university than have citizens of any other country; now several nations in Asia and Europe have caught up. Those competitor countries...are not only wide awake, said Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, but they are running a marathon...and we tend to run sprints.

Super-alert readers will also remember that Thomas Friedman's chapter on this subject was just about the only part of The World is Flat I liked.

Ben suggests that the answer is not so much to pick and choose winners by investing in specific industries, but to improve what he calls "microeconomic policy" by "making investments, regulatory changes, and infrastructure improvement to spur the economy forward, creating new industries and giving new tools to old ones." Read the whole thing if you're interested in some ideas for accomplishing this that are a little more serious than Bush's call to set up yet another advisory council.

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By: Kevin Drum

MAD SCIENTISTS AND PIG MEN....I know that I wasn't the only one mumbling "WTF?" when George Bush talked about banning "human-animal hybrids" last night, but apparently it was just a garden variety shout out to the religious right. PZ Myers provides an example of what's really going on in our nation's labs:

Down syndrome is a very common genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21.... We would love to have an animal model of Down syndrome...So what scientists have been doing is inserting human genes into mice, to produce similar genetic overdoses in their development.

....These mice are a tool to help us understand a debilitating human problem.

George W. Bush would like to make them illegal.

He's trusting that everyone will think he is banning monstrous crimes against nature, but what he's really doing is targeting the weak and the ill, blocking useful avenues of research that are specifically designed to help us understand human afflictions. His message isn't "We aren't going to let the mad scientists make monsters!", it's "We aren't going to let the doctors help those 'retards.'"

Actually, that's kind of disappointing. I was hoping that scientists were working on outfitting me with the eyes of an eagle and the reflexes of a cat. But instead they're just working on curing disease and making the world a better place. Sheesh.

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By: Kevin Drum

SOTU FOLLOWUP....I was a little surprised this morning to see so many newspapers highlighting George Bush's "addicted to oil" phrase, as though maybe this meant some sort of actual change of heart. My advice: don't believe it until you see it. WiredOpinion trawled through all of Bush's previous SOTU speeches and notes that he's said essentially the same thing every single year since 2002. Result so far: nada.

In a similar vein, a fact-checking article in the LA Times notes that Bush's call to reduce our Middle East oil imports by 75% is a little less dramatic than it seemed last night: "Experts point out that the U.S. gets only a fraction about 10% of its oil imports from the Middle East. In fact, the majority now comes from Canada and Mexico and Bush said nothing on Tuesday about them." In other words, he called for reducing our use of imported oil by about 7% in 20 years. Yee haw!

Elsewhere, Grist does some number crunching on a question I asked about last night: just how impressive is a 22% increase in clean energy research? David Roberts figures it comes to $264 million. [UPDATE: Actually, it's more like $660 million.] As he says, it's not chump change, but it's not exactly the Manhattan Project either.

Finally, you may recall that last night I commented that Bush's defense of the NSA's domestic spying program included "lies about previous presidents doing the same thing and federal courts having approved it." I left it at that, but the LA Times fact checker did a little more legwork:

Bush Stretches to Defend Surveillance

Defending the surveillance program as crucial in a time of war, Bush said that "previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority" that he did. "And," he added, "federal courts have approved the use of that authority."

Bush did not name names, but was apparently reiterating the argument offered earlier this month by Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, who invoked Presidents Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt for their use of executive authority.

However, warrantless surveillance within the United States for national security purposes was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 long after Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt stopped issuing orders. That led to the 1978 passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that Bush essentially bypassed in authorizing the program after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Since the surveillance law was enacted, establishing secret courts to approve surveillance, "the Supreme Court has not touched this issue in the area of national security," said William Banks, a national security expert at Syracuse Law School.

"He might be speaking in the broadest possible sense about the president exercising his authority as commander-in-chief to conduct a war, which of course federal courts have upheld since the beginning of the nation," Banks said. "If he was talking more particularly about the use of warrantless surveillance, then he is wrong."

Come on guys. Give up on "stretches" and "wrong." He lied.

Kevin Drum 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

HSA WONKERY....President Bush was light on details when he talked about Health Savings Accounts in his State of the Union address, but the White House site has more. This is a little long, but here are all five of his proposals for expanding and improving HSAs:

  1. Giving Individuals That Purchase HSAs On Their Own The Same Tax Advantages As Those With Employer-Sponsored Insurance. The President proposes making premiums for HSA-compatible insurance policies deductible from income taxes when purchased by individuals outside of work. In addition, an income tax credit would offset payroll taxes paid on premiums paid for their HSA policies.

  2. Eliminating All Taxes On Out-Of-Pocket Spending Through HSAs. The President proposed allowing Americans with HSAs and their employers to make annual contributions to their accounts to cover all out-of-pocket costs under their HSA policy, not just their deductible as provided under current law.

  3. Enabling Portable HSA Insurance Policies. Employers would have the ability to offer workers a Portable HSA insurance policy that the employees would own, control, and be able to take wherever they went. Their premiums would be tax-free and would not increase based on their health status at the time that they changed jobs, left the labor force, or moved.

  4. The President Proposes Extending The Benefits Of HSAs To Low-Income Families And Individuals Through Refundable Tax Credits. A family of four making $25,000 or less will be able to get a refundable tax credit of $3,000 from the Federal government to help buy an HSA-compatible policy that covers them for major medical expenses.

  5. The President Supports Allowing Employers To Make Higher Contributions To The HSAs Of Chronically Ill Employees. Under current law, employers must contribute the same amount to each employee's HSA. This prevents employers from providing extra help to their chronically ill employees employees who are more likely to use their HSAs to pay for their higher-than-average out-of-pocket expenses. Permitting employers to make higher contributions to HSAs of chronically ill employees will help those workers fund their HSAs and pay their out-of-pocket expenses tax-free through their accounts.

I'll probably have more to say about this later, but for now I just wanted to put this on the table. My point from Tuesday stands: these proposals sound pretty good, don't they? Needless to say, I agree that this is a pitifully inadequate answer to a big problem, and I can already think of several good ways to make that point. Still, big picture arguments aside, these changes are going to appeal on their merits to a lot of people. Just sayin.

POSTSCRIPT: There's another point here too. These are incremental changes, and that's the main avenue of attack against them. But that only works if our proposals aren't incremental. If it's just their small wonky proposals against our small wonky proposals, everyone will fall asleep. So who out there is willing to step up to the plate and start arguing for something big?

Kevin Drum 12:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (122)

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