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Tilting at Windmills

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July 31, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

DEMS UNITED ON THE WAR?....From the Washington Post today:

Twelve Democratic leaders of the House and Senate have urged President Bush in a strongly worded letter to begin withdrawing the 130,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by year's end, a sign that Democrats may be uniting on a key election-year issue that has divided the party.

Really? Here's what the letter said:

We believe that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq should begin before the end of 2006. U.S. forces in Iraq should transition to a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, training and logistical support of Iraqi security forces, and force protection of U.S. personnel.

At first glance, that sounded like news to me too, especially since it was signed by folks like Joe Biden, Harry Reid, and Jane Harman. But I wasn't sure, so I called Reid's office and talked to Jim Manley, one of his press guys. Here's the conversation:

Q: Is this a change in direction?

A: No, it's the same wording that was in the Reed-Levin amendment last month, which was supported by Senate Democrats 38-6.

Now, it was a strongly-worded letter, and it's good to see congressional Democrats reiterating their support for redeployment. But I'm not sure there's really much new here.

UPDATE: Several commenters have made a good point: Who cares if this is new? What matters is that the media reported it, and did so in a positive, "Dems united" kind of way. That's news all by itself.

Kevin Drum 7:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

"BAPTIZING POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS"....I can't quite tell whether he approves or disapproves, but in any case Andrew Sullivan drew my attention today to an interview with Mike Gerson, formerly George Bush's chief speechwriter, in the current issue of Christianity Today. Here are a couple of excerpts:

What challenges do you see for evangelicals who want to broaden the movement's social agenda?
It's probably a long-term mistake for evangelicals to be too closely associated with any ideology or political party. The Christian teaching on social justice stands in judgment of every party and every movement. It has to be an authentic and independent witness....

Where specifically do you think the Religious Right has gone off track?
Some of it is what I would call baptizing policy recommendations, as if there were a Christian view on tax policy or missile defense. These are questions of prudence and judgment on which reasonable people disagree.

Now, it's not as if Gerson has suddenly become a social liberal or anything, but it's still slightly stunning to see a major player in the Bush administration advise evangelicals not to become "too closely associated" with any political party. Karl Rove must be spinning in his casket.

Kevin Drum 2:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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By: Kevin Drum

LEBANON UPDATE....Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has been a moderating force in Iraqi politics for the past three years, has issued a statement demanding an end to hostilities in Lebanon:

"Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire," al-Sistani said in a clear reference to the United States.

"It is not possible to stand helpless in front of this Israeli aggression on Lebanon," he added. "If an immediate cease-fire in this Israeli aggression is not imposed, dire consequences will befall the region."

Juan Cole has a good post explaining some of the politics behind this, including a desire on Sistani's part not to be outflanked by his fiery rival Muqtada al-Sadr, a rejection of Iranian-style governance, and an informal alliance with Lebanon's moderate Amal party and its leader, Nabih Berri. Then he adds this:

What could he do if he were ignored? Sistani could call massive anti-US and anti-Israel demonstrations. Given Iraq's profound political instability, this development could be extremely dangerous. US troops in Baghdad and elsewhere are planning offensives against Shiite paramilitary groups, so tensions are likely to rise in the Shiite areas anyway. But big demonstrations could easily boil over into actual attacks on US and British troops. Both depend heavily on fuel that is transported through the Shiite south. Were the Shiites actively to turn on the US for its wholehearted support of continued Israeli air raids, the US military could be cut off from fuel and supplies. The British only have around 8,000 troops in Iraq, and they would be in profound danger if Iraq's Shiites became militantly anti-occupation.

Stay tuned. There is, essentially, no one left in the entire world that supports our position on Lebanon. Things could get even uglier than they already are very quickly.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (182)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHECKLIST LIBERALISM AND SOCIAL DEMOCRACY....Mark Schmitt hopes that the Lieberman-Lamont race spells the beginning of the end of "checklist liberalism":

For the enviros, its ANWR (the most trivial of victories, but the one that raises the money). For the minorities, affirmative action. (Likewise, of minor relevance to the actual structure of economic opportunity for most African-Americans and Latinos.) For women, its all about preserve abortion rights. There are a couple others, but those are the basic buttons you press to be credentialed as a good liberal Democrat. After you press them, you can do whatever you want.

Mark says that Lieberman has been pushing all the right buttons but he's losing anyway. And that's a good thing: "What if all of a sudden you couldnt count on Democratic women just because you said that right things about choice what if they started to vote on the whole range of issues that affect womens economic and personal opportunities?"

Henry Farrell offers a different, but complementary observation:

Where netroots bloggers are playing an unique role is changing the way that this is being framed in the national political debate. Theyve made the Lamont insurgency into an attack on the shibboleth of bipartisanism....The fact that guys like David Broder and Morton Kondracke view this as an attack on the tradition of cosy bipartisanship (and their source of authority in the punditocracy) isnt an accidental outcome, nor is it something that would likely have happened if there hadnt been blogs pushing this message (and getting read by reporters and editorialists) over a considerable period of time.

If both these guys are right (and only time will tell if they are), it basically suggests an explicit turn to a European parliamentary model of party governance without the formal structure of an actual parliamentary system. Democrats take on the role of a social democratic party with a broader agenda than just pleasing a small core of interest groups, but the flip side is that loyalty to that agenda is more-or-less absolute. The idea that you sometimes cross party lines to work with the opposition goes from being a sign of grace to being literally unthinkable.

Is this good or bad? I haven't made up my mind. But we're about 90% of the way there anyway, and it may be that the final 10% isn't really that big a deal. And if Mark is right that a broader concern for social democratic policies is one outcome of this, it would be well worth it.

I'm not quite sure that will be the case, though. But I hope he's right.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESSIVE REALISM, TAKE 2....Last week I wrote a short post about Robert Wright's New York Times op-ed in which he proposed a new foreign policy paradigm for liberals that he called "progressive realism." I basically thought Wright was correct on substance, but even so I was sort of breezily dismissive of the piece because I didn't entirely understand his reasoning, especially as it related to non-state terrorism. This response probably didn't reflect too well on me, but it turns out that breezy dismissal paid off in this case, because Wright followed up via email with a restated version of his thesis that I actually found more persuasive. With his permission, it's posted below.

For a longer essay that covers much of the same ground but in far more detail, check out "A Real War on Terrorism," a 9-part series that Wright published in Slate back in 2002.


Progressive Realism, Take 2 Robert Wright

Let me restate the argument in a way that I hope will make progressive realism's considerable relevance to the problem of non-state terrorist groups clearer.

Various technological trends suggest that, as the decades roll by, hatred of America abroad will translate into the death of Americans (via terrorism) with increasing efficiency. This "growing lethality of hatred" implies a couple of things:

  1. Hatred of America will be increasingly inimical to America's security, so we should act in ways that minimize it e.g., avoid adventures like Iraq, be a good and generous global citizen, respecting international law and norms, and working hard to comprehend and accomodate the perspectives of all peoples. In short, be roughly the opposite of George Bush and the neocons.

  2. So severe is this "growing lethality of hatred" that, even if we succeed in thus minimizing hatred of America, half a century from now America's security will still require an unprecedented level of intrusive arms control encompassing all nations on the planet. Further, America's security will best be served if all nations are by then free-market democracies, because (a) such nations have considerable "natural" transparency (regarding biotech facilities with munitions potential, for example) and (b) the entanglement of such nations in the global economy strengthens their incentive to preserve world order and their inclination toward international cooperation including, crucially, highly intrusive arms control.

Of course, wanting to bring democracy to the whole world sounds neoconish, but there's a difference. Progressive realism holds that:

  1. Making free-market democracy pervasive is only crucial to America's interest in the long run, over decades. Hence: no need to rush into, say, the Iraq war (which, as your reader Detroit Dan noted, I opposed unequivocally).

  2. Progressive realists (unlike neocons) believe that economic liberty strongly encourages political liberty. So (a) America should economically engage, rather than isolate, countries like Iran and North Korea, and (b) more generally, economic engagement offers a path to peacefully fostering the free-market democracy that neocons are inclined to implant via invasion.

In sum: Progressive realism puts great emphasis on dealing with the threat of terrorism, whether or not my NYT piece successfully conveyed this. The basic game plan is: (a) monitor and restrict with increasing severity the kinds of weapons with which terrorists can do the most damage; (b) cut off their lifeblood (hatred of us); (c) give them no place to hide i.e., create a world of naturally transparent societies that are economically interdependent and (by virtue of this interdependence) can be readily tied together via extensive global governance (which would go well beyond arms control, as my NYT piece notes).

Now, if your complaint is that I dont vow to go kill terrorists wherever I find them, well: Killing terrorists is nice when you can do it cleanly (i.e., when the value of killing them outweighs the blowback). But, as I noted in my op-ed, I reject the "premise common in Democratic policy circles lately: that the key to a winning foreign policy is to recalibrate the partys manhood just take boilerplate liberal foreign policy and add a testosterone patch." The problem is more subtle than that, and Democrats arent doing America a service when they fuel a Democratic-Republican arms race on the macho front.

Kevin Drum 1:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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July 30, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL COUNTERINSURGENCY, PART 3....Glenn Reynolds responds here to my post on Saturday criticizing the "bomb 'em into the stone age" crowd, and says via email, "It's possible you might even agree with my suggestion." Let's find out!

But first, an aside: my comment about "casual genocide" wasn't aimed at a few random blog commenters, as Glenn suggests. I was responding primarily to John Podhoretz, who suggested pretty clearly in his New York Post column last week that we made a mistake in Iraq by not killing enough Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35; secondarily to the Ann Coulters and Michael Ledeens of the world, who regularly imply that our only path to victory is to pulverize ever more of the Middle East; and more generally to all the conservative hawks who think the main reason we're not doing better in Iraq is because we just haven't been willing to fight a tough enough war. So that's where that came from.

But on to the main topic. I believe that our fight against Islamic jihadism is analogous on a global scale to a counterinsurgency. To use the hoary phrase, we'll succeed by "winning hearts and minds," and conventional warfare just can't do that. In fact, it's mostly counterproductive: it won't succeed in killing the guerrillas and it will lose us the support of the local citizenry, which in turn will make the insurgency even more formidable. Lebanon is serving as a pretty good case study of this right now. Here is Glenn's general response:

It's not so much a question of more or less violence as it is a question of applying the proper amount of violence to the proper people....In the 1990s, we followed the "ignore it and maybe it'll go away" strategy. As I've noted before, I can't blame people for that it was the strategy that I favored, too, based on what I knew at the time, as I thought that if we waited Islamic Jihadism would collapse under the weight of its own idiocy. But it clearly didn't work. I don't know whether the current strategy is correct or not, though it seems to me that so long as we give Syria and Iran (and for that matter, Saudi Arabia) a pass, we're never going to get much of a handle on this problem.

So do we agree? I can't tell for sure (what's the opposite of giving Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia "a pass"?), but I doubt it. We may agree in theory on the idea of conceiving the overall war against jihadism as something like a counterinsurgency, but in practice I think Glenn will support conventional war at every turn. Conversely, I believe that the evidence of the past half century clearly suggests that conventional war, no matter how brutally prosecuted, is ineffective against guerrillas. If we don't have the strength to face up to this and stop fighting conventional wars just because that's the kind of war we're comfortable with, the end result is likely be a nuclear bomb in downtown Manhattan.

So what's the alternative? I believe it's fundamentally nonmilitary and revolves around engagement: trade agreements, security pacts, genuine support for grassroots democracy, a willingness to practice the same international rules we preach, etc. The idea is to slowly but steadily promote democratic rule, liberal institutions, education of women, and international commerce. When military responses are necessary, they should be short, highly targeted, and designed to piss off the surrounding citizenry as little as possible. This will, needless to say, take a very long time and a lot of self restraint, but it won't succeed at all if every few years we set things back a decade with a conventional war.

And what if this doesn't work? What if we make progress among the great majority, but the committed jihadists retain enough support to become dangerous on a much broader scale than they are today? What if they nuke Manhattan anyway?

If that happens, then we really do have World War III on our hands. There are no guarantees of success, after all. But a series of conventional wars pretty much guarantees this outcome, whereas the counterinsurgency mindset at least has a chance of success. If we're serious about our future, it's the best option we have.

UPDATE: On second thought, I really should include this comment from Glenn's post too:

The real problem in the war on terror, I think, is a relatively small number of terror-backers in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Why aren't we waging unconventional warfare against them? They undoubtedly have toes we can step on in the form of business interests, overseas accounts, vacation homes, etc. Would we make more progress by targeting those sorts of things, rather than fighting their cannon fodder in the field?

If his suggestion that we stop "fighting their cannon fodder in the field" means that he agrees that conventional warfare isn't working, then maybe we agree more than I think. I'm not sure if that's his point, though.

Kevin Drum 6:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (149)

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By: Kevin Drum

EUPHEMISM WATCH....We need more euphemisms, and I really like this one: "portfolio diversification in your income."

Need an explanation? Here it is:

Middle-class city dwellers across the country are being squeezed....In New York, the supply of apartments considered affordable to households with incomes like those earned by starting firefighters or police officers plunged by a whopping 205,000 in just three years.

....Firefighters who want to live in high-priced cities can work two jobs, said W. Michael Cox, chief economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. I think its great, he said. It gives you portfolio diversification in your income.

Yep, it means working two jobs because housing costs are too high. Brilliant.

Via Hilzoy.

Kevin Drum 1:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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July 29, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

TAX CUT FOLLIES....I failed in my duty earlier this week to blog about Tuesday's Treasury report that studied the long-term effects of making Bush's tax cuts permanent. Why? Because it concluded and you'd better sit down for this that tax cuts don't pay for themselves. Imagine! However, since only idiots believe otherwise, I just ignored the whole thing.

But I confess that my brief scan of the news accounts left me with one question. The report suggested that under a certain set of improbable circumstances, the tax cuts would increase economic growth by 0.7%, and I wondered what that meant. 0.7% per year? 0.7 percentage points? Or what?

The CBPP has the answer: it means that in about 20 years the economy would be 0.7% bigger than it otherwise would be. In other words, instead of a GDP of $20 trillion in a couple of decades, our GDP would be about $20.1 trillion. Yippee!

Now, you know that the Treasury guys were doing their level best to make the boss's tax cuts look good. And yet, this was the best they could come up with. What's more, they even admit that this is an absolutely best case scenario that assumes massive spending cuts starting in a few years, something that's plainly not going to happen. Under more reasonable assumptions, the tax cuts would almost certainly have either no effect or a negative effect, so the report doesn't bother with those.

Once again: at the level of taxation we have in America today, tax cuts have virtually no effect on economic growth. They do allow the super-rich to keep more of their money, though. Eyes on the prize, gang, eyes on the prize.

Kevin Drum 6:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHURCH AND STATE....The New York Times reports that at least a few evangelical preachers are starting to figure out the danger of being co-opted by the Republican Party:

There is a lot of discontent brewing, said Brian D. McLaren, the founding pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Gaithersburg, Md., and a leader in the evangelical movement known as the emerging church, which is at the forefront of challenging the more politicized evangelical establishment.

More and more people are saying this has gone too far the dominance of the evangelical identity by the religious right, Mr. McLaren said. You cannot say the word Jesus in 2006 without having an awful lot of baggage going along with it. You cant say the word Christian, and you certainly cant say the word evangelical without it now raising connotations and a certain cringe factor in people.

Because people think, Oh no, what is going to come next is homosexual bashing, or pro-war rhetoric, or complaining about activist judges.

Preach it, brother. Evangelicals should keep in mind that the separation of church and state wasn't intended to protect the state, it was intended to protect the church. In the long run, becoming a bought-and-paid-for subsidiary of Karl Rove Inc. comes at a steep price.

More here from Steve Waldman in the April issue of the Monthly.

Kevin Drum 3:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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GLOBAL COUNTERINSURGENCY, TAKE 2....By coincidence, Taylor Owen has a piece today about exactly the subject of the previous post: the relative value of force vs. restraint when fighting a local or regional insurgency. He's part of a team combing though previously unreleased data on the Vietnam War, and notes that Henry Kissinger warned Richard Nixon that the mass bombing of Cambodia was like "poking a beehive with a stick." Taylor continues:

While the munitions [used today] are radically different, Kissinger may still be right about the use of airpower against a heterogeneous insurgency. Further, I think the question of the strategic costs of civilian casualties in this context is under studied. Much of the debate is, I believe, wrongly centred on the morality of the deaths and whether they are justified in international law.

This is an important question, undoubtedly, but one that is devoid of the potential strategic costs of the casualties. I would argue that a very small number of civilian casualties, regardless of the justice of the attack or the efforts to limit collateral damgage, can have a grossly disproportionate strategic cost when fighting an insurgency. Those whose families are killed will rarely be convinced by our rationalizations, nuances, claims of moral difference etc. More likely they will become, at the least, tacit supporters of the insurgency being fought. When fighting a group that requires this very civilian support, this becomes a serious strategic concern.

This is fairly obvious stuff, but it's hard to say it too many times. Careful use of military force is plainly one component of our current fight against jihadism, but "shock and awe" is the fastest way to lose a war against an insurgency that has even modest popular support. One of these days we'll figure this out and get serious about winning.

Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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By: Kevin Drum

A GLOBAL COUNTERINSURGENCY....Apparently the latest chatter from our friends on the hawkish right revolves around the idea that the United States might be too squeamish to win any of the various wars we're fighting at the moment. Perhaps a bit of casual genocide is in order?

Since it would appear that mere appeals to human decency aren't going to carry much weight with this crowd, how about a practical objection instead? Here's a reminder of how the Soviet Union fought its war in Afghanistan during the 1980s:

Although initially, Soviet operations were directed primarily against the mujahidin, once the Soviets realized the popular support for the resistance movement, they deliberately turned to a terrorist strategy of "migratory genocide" and "rubblization."....Fighter-bombers and medium bombers hit targets deep inside guerrilla territory, seeking to destroy the village infrastructure supporting the mujahidin.

"Free-fire" zones were created along the main roads and extended back to the hills behind them, and the villages within these zones were "virtually obliterated." In addition, field crops, food storage facilities, and the irrigation systems so vital to Afghan agriculture were bombed in the attempt to drive the people off the land. Soviet aircraft also deliberately attacked civilian caravans coming into or leaving the country, thus causing many casualties among women and children. Small bombs shaped as toys or other attractive objects were used with the intent to maim children, and these caused many livestock casualties as well.

....Since the war began, probably more than 200,000 Afghans have been killed and more than one-third of the population has been forced to flee to Pakistan, Iran, or the Afghan cities....There has been enormous slaughter of livestock....and the famine in places has been compared to that in Ethiopia.

I picked this description pretty much at random. You can find similar ones in dozens of places. I think three points are germane here:

  1. At the time, the United States was horrified by the Soviet brutality and genocide in Afghanistan. Remember?

  2. It didn't work. The Soviets were defeated and left Afghanistan in 1989.

  3. The Soviet campaign led fairly directly to the creation of al-Qaeda and the international jihadist movement. It's fashionable these days to suggest that the United States itself is to blame for the founding of al-Qaeda because we're the ones who armed the mujahidin, but that's far too facile. We may have helped things along, but it was the unimaginably brutal Soviet campaign that radicalized Afghanistan and rallied the jihadist community in the first place.

The fight against Islamic jihadism is essentially a vast, global counterinsurgency, something that the United States is lousy at. But we'd better get good at it fast, and the first step is to discard the fatuous notion that more violence is the obvious answer when the current amount of violence isn't doing the job. History suggests very strongly that the truth is exactly the opposite.

Kevin Drum 1:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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July 28, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

RAGS TO RICHES....The latest from the GOP:

Republican leaders are willing to allow the first minimum wage increase in a decade but only if it's coupled with a cut in inheritance taxes on multimillion-dollar estates, congressional aides said Friday.

Clearly, the Republican Party is the party of common sense. After all, if you give a few hundred dollars a month to the poorest of the working poor, it's only fair that you also give several million dollars to the richest of the idle rich.

Right?

Kevin Drum 9:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (173)

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By: Kevin Drum

NO EXIT....Think Progress has posted an excerpt of an interview that Richard Armitage did with NPR today. Armitage, who served in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration and was Colin Powell's #2 in the State Department until he left in 2005, talks here about Israel's last intervention in Lebanon, which began in 1982 and lasted not the promised few weeks, but 18 years:

Well, I remember with stunning clarity one of our Israeli interlocutors sitting in my office, telling me that, "Don't worry about this peace in Galilee operation. We understand our neighbors very well. We understand them better than anyone. We know all the dynamics of the situation in Lebanon." And that turned out not quite to be the case.

I suspect that people in government now are also hearing that from Israel. Don't get me wrong if I thought that this air campaign would work, and would eliminate Nasrullah and the leadership of Hezbollah, I think it would all be fine. But I fear that you can't do this from the sky, and that you're going to end up empowering Hezbollah, and perhaps introducing a dynamic into the body politic in Lebanon that will take some great period of time to recover from.

I suspect that this is correct, and I confess that I find it inexplicable. The fact that George Bush, for example, miscalculated the war in Iraq is understandable: he had no relevant experience to guide him and wasn't the kind of person to listen to those who did, like Colin Powell and Eric Shinseki. Likewise, the fact that the U.S. military initially showed no interest in fighting a counterinsurgency in Iraq is also understandable: it's not the kind of war they're set up to fight and it's not the kind of war they're very interested in learning to fight. Neither case is excusable, but they're both understandable.

But if there's any country in the world that should understand the nature of war against a guerrilla organization, it's Israel. Wanting to give an enemy a bloody nose is one thing, but they can't possibly have believed that an air campaign would do lasting damage to a broadly-supported indigenous guerrilla group like Hezbollah. Nor could they have seriously entertained the notion that they could bomb Beirut around the clock and create free-fire zones in southern Lebanon and still retain the sympathy of any substantial bloc of the Lebanese citizenry. Nor, having been the proximate cause of the rise of Hezbollah in the first place, could they have had any illusions about what effect a major war would ultimately have if it failed to utterly destroy its target.

But apparently they did. And now they don't know how to get out.

Kevin Drum 9:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

STRAIGHT TALKIN' JOHN....In the past, campaign finance reform has been spearheaded by four men: John McCain, Russ Feingold, Martin Meehan, and Christopher Shays. Suddenly, one of them is missing in action:

On Wednesday, [Feingold, Meehan, and Shays] introduced a bill to revive the crumbling system for public financing of presidential campaigns. The bill is largely identical to a measure all four men introduced in 2003, but this time around Mr. McCain is not on board.

A spokeswoman for Mr. McCain, Eileen McMenamin, did not return calls seeking comment for this article, but several people involved in discussions about the legislation said the senator's absence was related to his widely expected bid for the presidency in 2008.

Can we start keeping score on the number of positions that Mr. Straight Talk has abandoned now that he thinks he has a serious shot at the presidency? First there was his pandering to Jerry Falwell, then his cave-in on torture (see here and here), and now this. And the election is still two years away. Which position do you think he'll throw overboard next?

Kevin Drum 3:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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DEFENDING THE UMMA....This week's cover story in The New Republic, a profile of Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah written by Annia Ciezadlo, is genuinely interesting:

Revered by the Shia, respected by his enemies, he has already earned the distinction of being the only Arab leader to evict Israel from Arab land without having to sign a peace treaty. But he is also a religious warrior. Today, as he fights a lopsided military battle against the Jewish state, he is becoming an icon not just in the Arab world, where he was already a hero, but in the umma, the world of Islam. Nasrallah's war is not just a war between Lebanon and Israel, or even between Iran and America's allies; it's a war of myths and images, a battle to transform the Arab and Islamic worlds. Whatever battlefield setbacks Hezbollah may suffer in Lebanon, on this larger stage, Nasrallah has already won.

It's well worth reading the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 2:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

STAGFLATION....The Washington Post reports that the latest economic news is grim:

The nation's gross domestic product, which measures the value of all goods and services produced, rose at a below-average 2.5 percent annual rate in the second quarter....Meanwhile, consumer prices shot up at a heated 4.1 percent annual pace.

The combination of slow growth and high inflation, of course, is "stagflation," and yesterday Brad DeLong linked to a Nouriel Roubini piece suggesting that the number of news reports mentioning stagflation (a "potential barometer" of recession) had been quite high recently.

But is that true? Is the number not just high, but higher than usual? Only a chart can tell us for sure! And here it is: the number of citations of the word "stagflation" from Nexis over the past year. (The July 2006 number is a projection.)

Sure enough, Roubini is right: mentions of stagflation spiked heavily starting last month. And given today's news, I'll bet they'll spike even higher in the coming months. If news cites really are a decent way of projecting economic performance, the news is not good.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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DUAL LOYALTY WATCH....Today, Mona Charen suggests that American Jews are "downright stupid" for supporting Democrats even though George Bush is "indisputably the most pro-Israel president in the history of the United States." David Gelernter labels this same behavior "self-destructive nihilism."

U.S. supporters of Israel naturally take offense at charges of "dual loyalty," an ancient slur that American Jews care more about Israel than they do the United States. But as Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias point out, it's hard to take offense at this when you write pieces suggesting that American Jews ought to put aside other considerations and vote for whichever party displays a more dependable support for Israel. Conservatives should take care not to let their own agitprop come back to bite them.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (161)

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By: Kevin Drum

LEBANON UPDATE....Let's check in with Lebanon, shall we? First up, the Guardian reports on the views of our closest ally:

Tony Blair will press George Bush today to support "as a matter of urgency" a ceasefire in Lebanon as part of a UN security council resolution next week, according to Downing Street sources.

At a White House meeting, the prime minister will express his concern that pro-western Arab governments are "getting squeezed" by the crisis and the longer it continues, the more squeezed they will be, giving militants a boost.

Is that true? Are Arab governments, dismayed by our stalling tactics, turning toward support for Hezbollah? The New York Times says yes:

At the onset of the Lebanese crisis, Arab governments, starting with Saudi Arabia, slammed Hezbollah for recklessly provoking a war....Now, with hundreds of Lebanese dead and Hezbollah holding out against the vaunted Israeli military for more than two weeks, the tide of public opinion across the Arab world is surging behind the organization, transforming the Shiite groups leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, into a folk hero and forcing a change in official statements.

So: Tony Blair fears that the war is giving militants a boost; Arab public opinion has turned the head of Hezbollah into a folk hero; and as we already know, al-Qaeda has now decided to join the battle as well. What's more, on a purely military basis, it looks like Hezbollah has only been moderately weakened by the whole thing.

This is working out well, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (166)

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July 27, 2006
By: Paul Glastris

BROOKSIAN MATH... In his column today (sub. req.), David Brooks argues that increases in federal college aid have had no effect on college graduation rates, and that therefore Hillary Clinton and the DLC are foolish for proposing a big new college aid program.

Over the past three decades there has been a gigantic effort to increase the share of Americans who graduate from college. The federal government has spent roughly $750 billion on financial aid. Yet the percentage of Americans who graduate has barely budged. The number of Americans who drop out of college leaps from year to year.

If, like me, you read that column and had that familiar, infuriating feeling that Brooks is playing fast and loose with the numbers, you're right. Kevin Carey over at The Quick and the Ed explains:

There are two basic challenges to increasing the percentage of people who earn college degrees: getting more students to go to college, and getting more students to graduate once they get there. Brooks mixes and muddles these issues throughout the column, but as it happens he's got his facts wrong no matter how you look at it.

According to the U.S. Department of Education and the Census Bureau, the percent of high school graduates who immediately enrolled in college the fall after graduation increased from 49% in 1972 to 67% in 2004.

The percent of 25- to 29-year olds who completed at least some college increased from 36% to 57%.

The percent of 25- to 29-year olds who earned a bachelor's degree increased from 19% to 29%.

All of those numbers can and should be better. But it's foolish to say that the federal student aid money spent during that time did no good.

Guess Brooks is wearing his hack hat today.

Paul Glastris 5:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

MINOR FAME....I saw Wordplay last night and I have to admit that it was pretty mind-boggling to watch those folks solve crossword puzzles. Two minutes! I think it would take me that long to fill in a crossword puzzle even if I were just transcribing the answer key.

Anyway, it got me to thinking that perhaps my next goal in life should be to get someone to make me one of the answers in a New York Times crossword puzzle. The clue could be "Pioneer cat blogger." This is the kind of minor fame I seek, since actual, serious, major-league fame would do nothing except cause me grief.

What other kinds of minor fame would be cool? To be the response to a Jeopardy question? To have your name mentioned in a favorite author's novel? What else?

POSTSCRIPT: Oh, and former Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent is a seriously weird dude. He makes Bob Graham's diary obsession look like a mere personality tic.

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UN BOMBING UPDATE....Why did Kofi Annan accuse the Israelis of "apparently deliberate targeting" of a UN observation post in Lebanon on Tuesday? The BBC has the latest:

UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon contacted Israeli troops 10 times before an Israeli bomb killed four of them, an initial UN report says. The post was hit by a precision-guided missile after six hours of shelling, diplomats familiar with the probe say.

....The UN report says each time the UN contacted Israeli forces, they were assured the firing would stop.

A senior Irish soldier working for the UN forces had warned the Israelis six times that their bombardment was endangering the lives of UN staff, Ireland's foreign ministry said.

Had Israel responded to the requests, "rather than deliberately ignoring them", the observers would still be alive, a diplomat familiar with the report said.

Whether the bombing was deliberate or not remains an open question, but at least it's a little clearer why Annan said what he said. As Eric Martin put it after reading the BBC report, "It becomes slightly more difficult to claim innocent mistake. 'Who knew?' kind of rings hollow."

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AL-QAEDA JOINS IN....Juan Cole writes:

The Israeli occupation of Jerusalem has long been an al Qaeda bugbear. It sent Richard Reid to case El Al, Israeli airlines. It hit Israeli tourists in Mombasa and the Sinai. But Bin Laden always avoided investing in an area where there was already an active insurgency. He also could not join in with heretical Shiites like Hizbulah.

Today, al-Qaeda's #2 announced a change of course:

Ayman al-Zawahiri warned that al-Qaida would not stand "idly by, humiliated", as Israeli "shells burn our brothers".

....He said that the weapons being used by the Israelis were from the "crusader coalition" and added that "every participant will pay the price".

Zawahiri, wearing a grey robe and white turban, and speaking in front of a picture of the World Trade Centre on fire, said al-Qaida now saw "all the world as a battlefield open in front of us".

....A new audio or video message from Bin Laden about Lebanon and Gaza is expected to emerge in the coming days, according to IntelCenter, a US-based independent group that provides counterterrorism information to the US government and media.

Worse and worse.

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CHRISTIAN ZIONISM....The Wall Street Journal writes today about John Hagee, the man who's brought "Christian Zionism" into the mainstream:

Last week, as Israel's armed forces pounded Lebanon and worries of a wider conflagration mounted, Mr. Hagee presided over what he called a "miracle of God": a gathering of 3,500 evangelical Christians packed into a Washington hotel to cheer Israel and its current military campaign.

....President Bush sent a message to the gathering praising Mr. Hagee and his supporters for "spreading the hope of God's love and the universal gift of freedom." The Israeli prime minister also sent words of thanks. Israel's ambassador, its former military chief and a host of U.S. political heavyweights, mostly Republican, attended.

....The following day, [Hagee] mobilized evangelicals representing all 50 states in a lobbying blitz through the Capitol. Armed with talking points scripted by Mr. Hagee and his staff, they peppered senators and congressmen with arguments for Israel and against its enemies, particularly Iran.

....When addressing Jewish audiences, Mr. Hagee generally avoids talking about Armageddon. But his books, whose titles include "Beginning of the End" and "From Daniel to Doomsday," are filled with death and mayhem. "The battlefield will cover the nation of Israel!" he writes in "Jerusalem Countdown," his recent work, describing a "sea of human blood drained from the veins of those who have followed Satan."

How charming.

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IS ABORTION MURDER?....If fetuses are persons, then destroying a fetus is murder. The logical inference from this belief is that doctors who perform abortions or destroy blastocysts for their stem cells are murderers and ought to be locked up.

Needless to say, even people who are queasy about abortion and stem cell harvesting find this a bit much, which means that the smarter of the anti-abortion folks avoid making this argument because they don't want people to think they're loons. However, it's amusing sometimes to watch them contort themselves into rhetorical pretzels in an effort to justify such a plainly craven position. Here is Ramesh Ponnuru's effort:

Bush is right not to use the term "murder." There are two reasons I avoid it myself in this context. First, it is a legal concept with technical definitions, and these are not uniform across jurisdictions. Second, even in ordinary parlance, the term has no stable meaning. Plainly not all homicides are "murders" either as a technical legal matter or in ordinary parlance. To the (very limited) extent that the term has a core meaning in ordinary parlance, it connotes a malicious homicide. Even those of us who oppose certain forms of stem-cell research because they involve what we regard as the unjust taking of human life do not believe these unjust acts to be malicious in motivation.

That's a nice try, but is Ponnuru seriously trying to pretend that he thinks "murder" is a poor choice of words solely because its definition is too slippery? This doesn't even rise to the level of decent sophistry. He would dismiss it with the contempt it deserves if a non-fetus were involved.

The "malicious homicide" malarky is equally specious. "Malice" has several definitions, but the legal definition that applies to homicide is "the intention or desire to cause harm to another through an unlawful or wrongful act without justification or excuse." It's intent that's at issue here, not evil motives. And there's no question that doctors who perform abortions or harvest stem cells have intent aplenty.

If your position is that fetuses are persons and abortion should be outlawed, then intentionally destroying a fetus is murder and should be punished like murder. If your position is that fetuses aren't persons, then there's no compelling reason that destroying them should be a crime at all. Fish or cut bait.

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July 26, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

KEEPING COOL....Michael O'Hare provides some advice for cooling off without running the air conditioner:

Keep the sun out! Windows facing south to west need shading. Exterior awnings, a wonderful old technology that comes in cheerful striped colors, are the best thing for this.

....Dump the hot air out of your house in the evening! This is done with a window fan installed in the top (preferably) of a window, in a room where you will mind the noise least, usually a guest room or the kitchen, running to blow out.

....Finally, put in compact fluorescent light bulbs wherever you can use them.

Marian and I did the flourescent bulb thing a couple of weeks ago and it makes a small but noticeable difference. The fact that they draw less power and save lots of money is an added bonus.

On the fan front, however, I can report that every store within five miles of my house is completely sold out. We already have plenty of box fans for the evening, but I'm too cheap to run the AC during the day and wanted to get a little table fan to blow a breeze in my face while I'm sitting here blogging. No luck, though. I guess some other part of the country must have gotten all our fan shipments by mistake.

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THE UNDERCARD....Ed Kilgore writes today about the other primary on August 8: Cynthia McKinney vs. Hank Johnson for the championship of Dekalb County, Georgia.

Aside from money, McKinney has two big political problems. The first is that Georgia has no party registration, and her notoriety may tempt some of the district's small but significant Republican electorate to cross over....

But her bigger problem is her weakness among the district's large and growing African-American middle- and upper-middle-class population. They represent the political fulcrum of Dekalb County, and are much more likely to turn out for a runoff than the poorer black voters who have always served as McKinney's base.

....She has always been fast to play the race card....and there's no question she will allege a conspiracy to purge her from Congress. McKinney loves conspiracy theories the way a drunk loves a belt of Ten High before breakfast....But my guess is that McKinney has finally run out of luck.

Since Ed is originally from Dekalb County, he probably knows what he's talking about here. I have a feeling we're going to (once again) have a McKinney-free Congress when 2007 dawns.

Kevin Drum 7:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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SPEAKING IN TONGUES....Glenn Reynolds today:

"Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' while reaching for a stick." Condi is saying 'nice doggie.' Israel is the stick.

One may disapprove of this strategy, but complaints that Condi isn't accomplishing anything merely indicate that the complainer doesn't know what's going on.

Really? I think most of us complainers know precisely why Condi is so ostentatiously stalling. In fact, I think that pretty much everyone in the world over the age of ten has figured this out. It tells you a lot about George Bush's supporters that they so routinely mistake playground-level charades like this for shrewd and visionary geopolitical strategy.

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THE ARAB STREET....Marc Lynch, who has been watching lots of Arab TV, says the mood in the Middle East has changed considerably over the past two weeks:

America is totally alone on this. And more than most Americans might realize, America is being blamed for Israel's actions. The shift in Arab public discourse over the last week has been palpable. For the first few days, [there was a] split between the Saudi media and the "al-Jazeera public" which I wrote about at the time. Then for a few days, horror at the humanitarian situation, fury with the Arab states for their impotence, speculation about the endgame, and full-throated condemnation of Israeli aggression. But for the last few days, the main trend has been unmistakable: an increasing focus on the United States as the villain of the piece. (That the Israeli bombing of Beirut stopped just long enough for Condoleezza Rice's photo op certainly didn't help.)

Marc thinks the U.S. missed a chance for a "Suez moment," though that obviously isn't something the Bush administration ever had in mind anyway. Read the whole thing to see how he thinks things might have worked out if America had played a stronger role.

UPDATE: See also Eric Martin, writing in a slightly different vein.

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SCHOOL CHOICE....Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse points out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, both Britain and the U.S. already have a system of school choice, but it's "a school choice system riddled with inefficiencies and inequities." So how could we do better? Harry passes along an idea from Julian Betts about a market-like system in which schools have a fixed pot of money to bid for students:

Betts suggests this: first fund the schools equally on a per-student basis. Then distribute trade-able rights to admit highly advantaged students; and allow schools to auction those rights. Schools would then be forced to figure out how much they valued the money they were spending relative to the highly advantaged children they wanted. We dont know what the outcome would be. At one end of the spectrum youd have schools with high concentrations of advantage and not much money; at the other end of the spectrum high concentrations of disadvantage and loads of money. It would probably take a few years for administrators to work out what the real costs of disadvantaged children were; but they would have a powerful incentive to work it out.

Schools would have the right to accept the students they wanted, but good schools would end up with very strong financial incentives to accept poor students and bad schools would end up with plenty of money to use to attract better students (as well as to buy more books and hire better teachers).

I'm not sure why I'm blogging about this since there are dozens of pretty serious problems with this proposal. But, like Harry, I was intrigued by the fact that someone has proposed a seemingly new idea. It would be sort of fascinating to give it a trial run somewhere.

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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LEBANON UPDATE....The New York Times reports this unsurprising news today:

Almost two weeks into its military assault on Hezbollah, Israel said Tuesday that it would occupy a strip inside southern Lebanon with ground troops until an international force could take its place....Officials have talked about limited raids into Lebanon, but now they seem ready to commit ground forces for at least weeks, if not months.

They said the zone would be much smaller than the strip of southern Lebanon roughly 15 miles deep that Israel occupied for nearly two decades before withdrawing in 2000.

And there's this from the Guardian:

Iran warned the west yesterday that attempts to broker a Lebanon peace deal at today's Rome summit are destined to fail and it predicted a backlash across the Muslim world unless Israel's military forces were immediately reined in.

....Hamid Reza Asefi, the foreign ministry spokesman in Tehran, said: "They should have invited all the countries of the region, including Syria and Iran, if they want peace. How can you tackle these important issues without having representatives of all countries in the region?"

One does not have to approve of either the Iranian or Syrian regimes to see that they have a point. As Zbigniew Brzezinski put it today, "In the final analysis, Iran is a serious country, it's not Iraq. It's going to be there. It's going to be a player." Like it or not, we have to deal with them if we want to get anything done.

Of course, it's increasingly obvious that we don't want to get anything done. The Rome conference is pretty clearly not designed to accomplish anything serious, and in the meantime Israel is gearing up for a long-term occupation of Lebanon I'd bet on years myself, not weeks or months. It's hard to think of a worse outcome for Israel, the Middle East, or the world, but that's what we're getting.

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INKBLOT....The New York Times describes the military's strategy for regaining control of Baghdad:

In effect, the scheme is a version of the ink blot counterinsurgency strategy of grabbing a piece of terrain, stabilizing it and gradually expanding it.

I don't get it. Why have they named this operation after my cat? Is it because he likes to curl up on the local terrain and is, himself, gradually expanding?

And as long as we're being less than serious here, I have to ask: Is this the best headline ever written, or what? It turns out that the whole thing is a bit eccentric but basically harmless, but the headline is a masterpiece. Sometimes the simplest things are the best.

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July 25, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GAZA UPDATE....An aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, tells the Guardian that various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have agreed to a deal in Gaza:

The deal, agreed on Sunday, is to halt the rocket attacks in return for a cessation of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, and to release Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured on June 25, in exchange for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners at some point in the future.

....According to the aide, Israel is willing to release Palestinian prisoners in return for Cpl Shalit but insists the exchange will not be simultaneous and its release of prisoners will be described as a "goodwill gesture" and not as a direct exchange.

This has been accepted by Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, and the Hamas political movement but not by Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus. Mr Meshal wields considerable power because he controls funds donated by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The military wing of Hamas, which is holding Cpl Shalit, is particularly dependent on the money from Mr Meshal.

It's always wise not to get too excited by reports of a possible "deal" in the Middle East, but this is still positive news. For one thing, if Meshal decides to buy in, it might be an indication that Iran and Syria are interested in cooling down a situation that's spiraled far beyond what they originally envisioned, and that in turn might be a sign that they're willing to put some pressure on Hezbollah to turn down the heat in Lebanon.

Then again, maybe not. In any case, stay tuned.

UPDATE: Brad Plumer provides some additional background here.

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RETREAT FROM REALITY....Results from a new Harris poll:

Half of Americans now say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded the country in 2003 up from 36 percent last year....In addition, 64 percent say Saddam had "strong links" with al Qaeda....Fifty-five percent said that "history will give the U.S. credit for bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq."....American confidence in the Iraqis has improved: 37 percent said Iraq would succeed in creating a stable democracy, up five points since November.

Amazing, isn't it? As the prewar facts become clearer and Iraq spirals further into civil war, the American public becomes ever more withdrawn from reality. Even if complaints from us shrill liberal bloggers are dismissed, surely poll results like this should get the media pondering the question of whether they're doing a very good job of reporting what's really going on.

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NATURE, NURTURE, ETC....The gold standard of IQ research has long been studies of identical twins adopted into different homes. Twins are born with the same genes, so if twins brought up by different parents end up with similar IQs anyway it's evidence that IQ is primarily influenced by heredity. If they end up with different IQs it's evidence that upbringing is important.

Most of the research in this area has suggested that genes are more important than upbringing. But there's a flaw: poor people don't adopt very often, which means the research tells us only about children brought up in middle class environments. But what about twins brought up in poor homes? Does environment play a larger role there? In the New York Times Magazine, David Kirp reports on a well-known French study published in 1996:

To answer that question, two psychologists, Christiane Capron and Michel Duyme, combed through thousands of records from French public and private adoption agencies....The average I.Q. of children from well-to-do parents who were placed with families from the same social stratum was 119.6. But when such infants were adopted by poor families, their average I.Q. was 107.5 12 points lower. The same holds true for children born into impoverished families: youngsters adopted by parents of similarly modest means had average I.Q.s of 92.4, while the I.Q.s of those placed with well-off parents averaged 103.6. These studies confirm that environment matters the only, and crucial, difference between these children is the lives they have led.

Kirp also discusses some research by Eric Turkheimer, who noticed that even in more mundane research of twins brought up by their parents, it was mainly middle-class homes that were studied. Turkheimer went looking for more wide-ranging data:

He found what he needed in a sample from the 1970s of more than 50,000 American infants, many from poor families, who had taken I.Q. tests at age 7. In a widely-discussed 2003 article, he found that, as anticipated, virtually all the variation in I.Q. scores for twins in the sample with wealthy parents can be attributed to genetics. The big surprise is among the poorest families. Contrary to what you might expect, for those children, the I.Q.s of identical twins vary just as much as the I.Q.s of fraternal twins. The impact of growing up impoverished overwhelms these childrens genetic capacities. In other words, home life is the critical factor for youngsters at the bottom of the economic barrel.

As with all of this research, take it with a grain of salt. There are plenty of things we don't know yet, and the vast bulk of IQ research indicates pretty clearly that genes have a very strong influence on intelligence.

But it's nonetheless worthwhile to point out what ought to be obvious in any case: even if heredity has a strong effect on intelligence, so does upbringing. And even if upbringing only accounts for 30-40% of the variance, that's still a lot and it's probably at its highest in cases where home life is the worst.

Of course, it's still unclear what to do about this. Intensive educational interventions are the most obvious possibility, but results on this front haven't been very promising. Still, research like this suggests pretty strongly that we shouldn't give up. Biology isn't chickenfeed, but it's not destiny either. Especially among poor children, education and upbringing can have a considerable impact.

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YO BLAIR....American newspapers focused mostly on George Bush's contribution to last week's impromptu open-mike conversation with Tony Blair at the G8 summit. Bush's keen observation that we need to "get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over" got most of the attention.

British newspapers, naturally enough, focused on the wince-inducing British side of what they called the "Yo Blair" conversation. For example, here is Andrew Rawnsley a couple of days ago in the Observer:

There's no question which exchange is most enjoyable for those with contempt for the Prime Minister. It is the moment that makes Mr Blair look like the poodle of popular caricature. Worse, he comes over as a poodle who can't even beg his master to toss him a dog biscuit. It is the same bit of the encounter that has caused the most wincing among the Prime Minister's friends.

When Tony Blair offers himself as a Middle East peace envoy, he is casually rebuffed by the American President between bites on a bread roll. Told by Bush that 'Condi is going', the normally fluent Blair is reduced to inarticulate jabbering. 'Well, it's only if, I mean, you know, if she's got a... or if she needs the ground prepared as it were... Because obviously if she goes out, she's got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk.' Yeah, just talk.

Given all this, today's Guardian story summarizing some new poll results surprised me:

Britain should take a much more robust and independent approach to the United States, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today, which finds strong public opposition to Tony Blair's close working relationship with President Bush.

....Just 30% think the prime minister has got the relationship about right, against 63% saying he has tied Britain too closely to the US.

Isn't that amazing? Blair's longtime subservience to Bush coupled with his apparent inability to influence U.S. policy in any way (the supposed justification for tagging along with Bush) has never been more apparent, and yet 30% of the country still thinks Blair's relationship with Bush is "about right." I wonder what it would take to convince them otherwise?

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GEORGE BUSH AND THE MUSHROOM CONGRESS....When I first read Monday's story about Pakistan building a new plutonium reactor, my first thought was that surely this wasn't news to the U.S. government. And I was right. Today's followup confirms that the Bush administration has "long known" about Pakistan's plans.

Of course, the fact that the Bush administration knew about it doesn't mean anyone else did:

Henry D. Sokolski, the Defense Department's top nonproliferation official during the George H.W. Bush administration, said he was most surprised by the way news of the reactor in Pakistan became known.

"What is baffling is that this information which was surely information that our own intelligence agencies had was kept from Congress," said Sokolski, now director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "We lack imagination if we think that this is no big deal."

Indeed we do. We now have a president whose standard operating procedure is to keep Congress in the dark about anything that might cause him even the mildest inconvenience. Even if it's something that Congress really ought to know about in order to do its job.

But that's the whole point, isn't it? If Congress ever started to do its job, George Bush would be in serious trouble.

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July 24, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

INCUMBENTS....When I was taking political science classes in the late 70s, the reelection rate for incumbents in the House of Representatives was upwards of 90%. This was seen as a worrying thing. Flash forward to today and most people would be delighted if the incumbent reelection rate were that low. In recent elections it's hovered around 98%. There are several reasons for this:

  • Gerrymandering has always been with us, but it's become easier and more precise in recent years. In the past, only a political genius could perform genuinely high-quality gerrymandering. Today it's available to anyone with a PC and the right software.

  • Conservatives and liberals have been showing an increasing tendency to self-segregate. That is, liberals tend to move to liberal places and conservatives tend to move to conservative places. This has an obvious self-gerrymandering effect, but also has the less obvious effect of making people more partisan. When you spend time only with people you agree with, your views tend to become more extreme. This is good for incumbents since extreme voters are less likely to defect to the opposition.

  • In a weird sort of vicious circle, Congress passes deliberately complex laws and then spends vast amounts of money on constituent services to help voters who are having trouble with federal bureaucracy. Because of this, constituent service has skyrocketed in the past few decades, and the beneficiaries of this service tend to vote for the people who helped them regardless of party affiliation or ideology.

  • Money is far more concentrated. Incumbents outspend challengers by a ratio of 5:1 or more these days, and this has become increasingly important as campaigns have become increasingly dependent on media buys.

  • Contrary to popular wisdom, there are fewer true independents now than in the past.

What brings this up? A new article, "The Redistricting Myth," published in the Democratic Strategist by Jonathan Krasno. He makes the salutary point that gerrymandering is not really the main reason that incuments are so safe today, arguing instead that "the best explanation is deceivingly simple: lack of effort." Krasno points out that in the 2004 presidential race there were plenty of swing districts (those won by less than 10 percentage points), and suggests that these seats could all be up for grabs if the Democratic Party were willing to fund serious challenges in them instead of concentrating the bulk of its money in a mere dozen races.

Do I believe this? Only partly. There are two big problems with Krasno's theory. First, there are several trends that have converged to make incumbents so safe today, and money is only one of them. Second, money isn't concentrated just for the hell of it. There's a limited amount to go around, and there's a pretty good case to be made that modest funding in lots of races simply doesn't work. If you're going to beat an incumbent, you need lots of money.

That said, though, I think Krasno has a point here: "It is tempting to conclude that parties are merely responding to political reality. That is certainly true, but it is also true that parties and other big players help create that reality." This isn't an excuse to fund every challenger out there, but Krasno is right that lack of funding helps to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would probably be a good idea to spread the wealth around this year a little more than usual.

Kevin Drum 7:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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HOSTILE MEDIA SYNDROME....Shankar Vedantam writes in the Washington Post about a paper on perceptions of media bias that was published in 1985 but is newly relevant today:

Partisans, it turns out, don't just arrive at different conclusions; they see entirely different worlds. In one especially telling experiment, researchers showed 144 observers six television news segments about Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon.

Pro-Arab viewers heard 42 references that painted Israel in a positive light and 26 references that painted Israel unfavorably.

Pro-Israeli viewers, who watched the very same clips, spotted 16 references that painted Israel positively and 57 references that painted Israel negatively.

The original paper is here. Note that the point of the paper has nothing to do with whether the news segments themselves were biased or unbiased. The point is that partisans always judge the media to be hostile to their position. Vedantam comments on the effect this has on reporters in a followup Q&A:

The sense inside newsrooms that you are doing your job when you are getting beaten up by both sides is very ingrained. Many reporters wear the fact that everyone hates them as a badge of pride. Of course, that can lead to problems of its own, since reporters are obviously not completely above criticism. Sometimes, one side's criticism may be right!

The belief that you're doing OK if both sides hate you has always struck me as infantile. Vedantam is right: maybe one side's criticisms are right. More to the point, maybe both sides' criticisms are right. It's quite possible to write something so bad that everyone has a legitimate beef.

But then again, not always. Sometimes, the media bias really is all in your mind.

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LOOKING FOR TROOPS....Via Josh Marshall, the Forward reports that the Bush administration is pushing for the creation of a multinational force to patrol Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah:

During a briefing with senior officials at several major Jewish organizations, Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams reportedly said that a multinational force in Lebanon would have to be combat ready, authorized and appropriately equipped to engage Hezbollah militarily if needed. Such a force, he said, would also have to patrol not only Lebanons border with Israel but also Lebanons border with Syria, to prevent smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah. In addition, such a force would have to observe Lebanons sea and air ports to make sure that Iran is not rearming Hezbollah, Abrams reportedly said.

This is fascinating. At a guess, something this ambitious would take a minimum of seven or eight combat brigades plus associated support and logistics. Call it 40,000 troops in round numbers.

The United States has previously said that it won't be able to participate in this because our troops are tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UN can't help since it deals only in peacekeeping missions, not combat missions. None of the troops can come from Middle Eastern countries, of course. NATO troops are largely committed to Afghanistan, and Europe has in any case been notably reluctant to commit combat troops to either the Middle East or Africa.

What's needed here are (a) large numbers of (b) quickly deployable (c) combat troops. Offhand, I can't think of anyplace this could come from. Am I missing something?

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE META-ISRAEL BLOGGING....David Adesnik theorizes today that the relative silence of liberal blogs regarding the Israel-Lebanon war is due to pressure from "a part of the online left which is so viciously anti-Israel that moderates have been intimidated into silence." Matt Yglesias isn't impressed:

If we heard more from liberal bloggers, we'd be hearing commentary that ranged from somewhat critical to very critical [of Israel]. So why don't we hear more?

Two things, I think. For one thing, [blah blah blah]....

The other thing is that David's right to see an intimidation factor at work. But annoying and even maddening as hard-core Israel-bashers may be, there's nothing especially intimidating about a group of powerless and marginal email-senders and comment-writers. Israel's hard-core supporters in the United States, by contrast, are extremely powerful and in the habit of mounting broad-brush smear campaigns against people they dislike.

I've been making a studious effort to post more frequently about the war ever since I penned this post a week ago, and so far nobody has mounted any kind of broad-brush smear campaign against me. This is probably because I'm not worth the trouble (and not generally anti-Israel either), but Matt's experience nonetheless rings true to me, though in a lower-key way than he suggests.

For starters, my personal experience is that comment threads are way different than email. Comments tend to degenerate pretty quickly on both sides. The hard-core supporters of both Israel and the various Arab entities are well represented, as are, unfortunately, a smattering of anti-semites. Since no one pays much serious attention to blog comments, though, this doesn't matter much.

(NB: I occasionally try to ban the obvious anti-semites, but it doesn't take much more than a sixth-grade education to get around that. Sadly, it turns out that most of them graduated from elementary school, though you might reasonably expect otherwise based on the quality of their rants.)

Email, however, is a completely different story. In the past two weeks, I think I've gotten a grand total of one email suggesting that I should be less sympathetic toward Israel. This compares to dozens that take the opposite tack in one way or another. And there has been absolutely no vitriol in any of them. Every single one has made some kind of reasoned and reasonable point, linked to some recommended reading, or pointed out a plausible flaw in something I've written.

In other words, the possibility of smear campaigns aside, it's nonetheless true that there are a lot of Israel supporters willing to take the time to write lots of email of precisely the kind most likely to appeal to a person like me. Conversely, there's virtually no one on the other side who bothers. That's a kind of power all by itself.

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By: Kevin Drum

ON GLOBAL WARMING DENIERS....Two years ago, Naomi Oreskes published a widely cited piece in Science that reviewed a large sample of journal articles on climate change published between 1993-2003. Her conclusion: not a single paper refuted the position that the earth is warming and humans are largely responsible.

Last month the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed declaring that Oreskes was mistaken and suggesting that there really was considerable debate within the scientific community. Today, Oreskes takes to the LA Times to tell us that, in reality, "the consensus stands":

To be sure, there are a handful of scientists, including MIT professor Richard Lindzen, the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial, who disagree with the rest of the scientific community. To a historian of science like me, this is not surprising. In any scientific community, there are always some individuals who simply refuse to accept new ideas and evidence. This is especially true when the new evidence strikes at their core beliefs and values.

....A historical example will help to make the point. In the 1920s, the distinguished Cambridge geophysicist Harold Jeffreys rejected the idea of continental drift on the grounds of physical impossibility. In the 1950s, geologists and geophysicists began to accumulate overwhelming evidence of the reality of continental motion, even though the physics of it was poorly understood. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was on the road to near-universal acceptance.

Yet Jeffreys, by then Sir Harold, stubbornly refused to accept the new evidence, repeating his old arguments about the impossibility of the thing. He was a great man, but he had become a scientific mule. For a while, journals continued to publish Jeffreys' arguments, but after a while he had nothing new to say. He died denying plate tectonics. The scientific debate was over.

Ouch. Somebody please tell James "Global Warming is a Hoax" Inhofe.

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (153)

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By: Kevin Drum

SURPRISE!....I have a wee request: Can we please stop treating as major news the unceasing "surprise" visits to the Middle East by various Bush administration luminaries? Rice does it, Rumsfeld does it, Cheney does it, Bush does it, and these things really aren't much of a surprise anymore, are they? More like a transparent effort to get a headline from a gullible press corps. It's time to wake up.

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July 23, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE HONOR SYSTEM....There are more ways to pass a law than to actually pass a law:

The administration plans to cut the jobs of 157 of the [Internal Revenue Service's] 345 estate tax lawyers, plus 17 support personnel, in less than 70 days. Kevin Brown, an I.R.S. deputy commissioner, confirmed the cuts after The New York Times was given internal documents by people inside the I.R.S. who oppose them.

....Sharyn Phillips, a veteran I.R.S. estate tax lawyer in Manhattan, called the cuts a back-door way for the Bush administration to achieve what it cannot get from Congress, which is repeal of the estate tax.

Actually, this makes sense. See, back when Clinton was president rich people cheated on their taxes a lot. It was all part of the decline in honor and dignity that the Clinton White House presided over, and that's why he was forced to hire more estate tax lawyers during the 90s.

But that all changed when George Bush was elected, and now rich people feel downright embarrassed about using sophisticated estate planning services and dodgy asset valuation schemes to reduce their estate tax liability. This newfound respect for the law means that we just don't need all those lawyers anymore. The super-rich can be trusted to do the right thing all on their own.

Anybody disagree?

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By: Kevin Drum

WHO IS ISRAEL FIGHTING?....Tony Blair continues to support Israel's right to respond to Hezbollah's rocket attacks, but "Downing Street sources" say that Blair also agrees with Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells' "scathing denunciation of Israel's military tactics":

Speaking to a BBC reporter before travelling on for talks in Israel, where he will also visit the missile-hit areas of Haifa and meet his Israeli opposite number, Howells said: 'The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people: these have not been surgical strikes. If they are chasing Hizbollah, then go for Hizbollah. You don't go for the entire Lebanese nation.'

The French Defense Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, said much the same thing today:

"One cannot ask the Lebanese national army to disarm the militias and at the same time bomb the main Lebanese barracks." Alliot-Marie also raised doubts about the strategic sense of bombing factories that produce powdered milk for infants.

"And unfortunately, more and more, we are seeing a number of bombardments that are hitting civilians, even convoys of people who were simply seeking to reach Beirut to find shelter have been hit by bombs."

Israel's military strategy continues to baffle me. As Gideon Levy puts it, Israel "claims it has declared war on Hezbollah but, in practice, it is destroying Lebanon."

It remains unclear whether this was part of the plan all along or merely the all-too-predictable result of lofty political promises leading to improvised escalation, but it's quickly beginning not to matter. A war against Hezbollah is justifiable, whether wise or not, but a war against Lebanon isn't. Israel will gain nothing from continuing it.

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESSIVE REALISM....Last week I skimmed through Robert Wright's New York Times op-ed about a new school of foreign policy he calls "progressive realism." I wasn't able to make much sense out of it, however, so yesterday I read through it more carefully. I still find the writing a bit muddled and opaque, but I think I understand the outline of what he's saying. Here's my nickel summary:

  • The world is interconnected enough that "national interest" includes a lot of things it didn't used to include. Keeping countries from becoming failed states and terrorist havens, for example, is clearly in our national interest.

This sounds a lot like neoconservative idealism, but two things make it "progressive":

  • A strong belief that promoting economic liberty is the best way of promoting political liberty. This means support for globalization and free trade. Human rights activists and labor unions will object to this, but they can be brought on board by agreeing to give international bodies the authority to regulate not just trade, but also things such as labor and environmental issues.

  • A renewed devotion to international institutions such as arms control regimes and the United Nations. As Wright puts it, "the national interest can be served by constraints on Americas behavior when they constrain other nations as well." However, the extent to which we should bind ourselves to these institutions is left a bit fuzzy.

Unfortunately, the rest of the essay is oddly disconnected from these main points, especially since it never really addresses head on the problem of non-state terrorist groups. It's also less persuasive than it would be if Wright had presented some examples of past events in which progressive realism has been a success.

In any case, I think Wright has mainly jumped on the bandwagon of trying to figure out new ways of presenting and labeling good old fashioned liberal foreign policy. Peter Beinart did much the same in The Good Fight. The main difference is that Beinart took his cues from Reinhold Niebuhr while Wright takes his from Hans Morgenthau with a hat tip to Norman Angell.

But that's OK. If rebranding helps to sell common sense, then we should rebrand away. We're still looking for our Boswell, though.

Kevin Drum 2:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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July 22, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

SHUFFLING....This is obviously not a scientific survey or anything, but I have a question for all the iPod owners out there: Would you say that you mostly select specific songs (or albums or playlists) to listen to, or do you mostly set it on shuffle and let the iPod do the work?

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By: Kevin Drum

CIVILIANS....Alan Dershowitz argues today that all those civilians being killed in Lebanon may not really be civilians after all:

We need a new vocabulary to reflect the realities of modern warfare. A new phrase should be introduced into the reporting and analysis of current events in the Middle East: "the continuum of civilianality." Though cumbersome, this concept aptly captures the reality and nuance of warfare today and provides a more fair way to describe those who are killed, wounded and punished.

[Lengthy distinction then drawn between truly innocent civilians vs. civilians who support or sympathize with terrorist groups.]

The Israeli army has given well-publicized notice to civilians to leave those areas of southern Lebanon that have been turned into war zones. Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit. Some those who cannot leave on their own should be counted among the innocent victims.

Excepting the lame and the sick, then, anyone who declines to leave their home despite Israeli orders to do so is, ipso facto, complicit with terrorism and presumably fair game once the Israeli invasion gets under way. How they get totted up after the killing is over depends on where they fall on Dershowitz's nebulous "continuum."

This is very clever. Alan Dershowitz, after all, is nothing if not very clever. But I wonder how he'd respond to a similarly clever and nuanced definition of the word "terrorist"?

Kevin Drum 3:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (361)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEZBOLLAH'S PLAN....Why did Hezbollah conduct the cross-border raid last week that resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers? What did Hezbollah's leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, think he was going to accomplish? I've read quite a few variations on the explanation offered here by Adam Shatz:

Since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal ("the first Arab victory in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict," as Nasrallah often notes), Hezbollah has faced mounting pressure, from the West but also at home, to lay down its arms and become a purely political organization a fate the party dreads....By conducting a raid that was likely to provoke a brutal Israeli reprisal, Nasrallah may have gambled that the fury of the Lebanese would soon turn from Hezbollah to the Jewish state, thereby providing a justification for "the national resistance" as Lebanon's only deterrent against Israel.

....By striking at Israel's Army during its most destructive campaign in Palestine since 2002's "Operation Defensive Shield," Nasrallah must have known that he would earn praise throughout the Muslim world for coming to the aid of Palestinians abandoned by the region's authoritarian governments, a number of which have pointedly chastised Nasrallah's "adventurism." And by bloodying Israel's nose, Hezbollah could once again bolster its aura in the wider Arab world as a redoubtable "resistance" force, a model it seeks to promote regionally, especially in Palestine, where Nasrallah is a folk hero, and in Iraq, where Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the radical Shiite Mahdi Army, has proclaimed himself a follower of Hezbollah and has threatened to renew attacks against US forces in solidarity with the Lebanese.

I think of this as the "bin Laden strategy," since there's considerable evidence that the goal of Osama bin Laden's terrorist attacks was to provoke the United States into a massive military response that he hoped would enrage and unify the Muslim world. Shatz claims that Nasrallah is doing the same thing on a smaller scale.

I find this unconvincing, in much the same way that I find almost all "two cushion bank shot" theories of political strategy unconvincing. Hindsight often makes such theories plausible, but bin Laden aside, the fact is that even the smartest political leaders rarely have either the subtlety or the guts to hang their future on a risky bet that a series of counterintuitive, low-probability events will all turn out just right.

Is Nasrallah such a guy? Maybe. But am I the only person who thought that his initial reaction to Israel's massive retaliation seemed a bit....improvised? Perhaps a little more blustery than you'd expect even from a guy who trades in bluster? I can't help but think that what Nasrallah really expected was that Israel would conduct a few bombing runs, eventually agree to a prisoner swap, and that would be the end of it. That's a straightforward strategy that combines low risk with a clear benefit to Hezbollah's reputation in the Arab world. It just didn't work out that way.

Needless to say, this is idle conjecture. Anybody have a link to a piece that provides some more informed speculation?

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (122)

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July 21, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

I DON'T CARE WHETHER IT HAS A TRUNK....If I have any millionaire fans out there wondering what to get me for my birthday, I think I'd like to have one of these. Thanks.

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By: Kevin Drum

TENNIS WONKERY....Mark Starr chides Americans for being such sports provincialists:

As a result, we are missing out on a newborn rivalry that not only looms as possibly one of the best in the history of tennis, but quite likely the best individual rivalry in sports today: Switzerland's Roger Federer vs. Spain's Rafael Nadal. It's only natural that America would prefer the pinnacle of rivalry to have a homier caste. I, too, can wax nostalgic about olden days when Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl dueled Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe for court supremacy. Or for Chrissie-Martina. But Federer and Nadal are playing the game at such a transcendent level that issues of nationality should fade away. Genius should always trump parochial attachments.

Well, sure, I agree. Federer is already playing for the history books and not much else, and Nadal is giving every sign of being the real deal rather than just the latest two-year wonder. For the time being, it's one of the best sports rivalries around.

Still, I have to demur at least slightly from Starr's conclusion. The current lack of top American tennis players is certainly one reason that American interest in tennis has waned, but there's another reason too: the game itself has lost the contrast of styles that was at the center of so many of its most brilliant rivalries. Borg-McEnroe was a great rivalry for a lot of reasons, but one of them was because Borg was the metronomic baseliner who never missed pitted against McEnroe's dazzling serve-and-volley shotmaking. Ditto for Sampras-Agassi and Evert-Navratilova.

But the serve-and-volleyers are all gone now. The last crop in the men's game Sampras, Pat Rafter, Richard Krajicek, Todd Martin, all of them top 20 players in the late 90s are retired now. Instead, virtually every top player today is a "power baseliner," a style perfected in the 80s and 90s that teaches its students exactly what it sounds like it teaches: stay behind the baseline and whack the absolute shit out of every ball that comes your way. There's no questioning the skill and athleticism of its practitioners, but it nonetheless gets a wee bit tedious when every single player in the world plays the same way no matter what the surface. Federer is the closest thing we have left to a full-court player, and even he comes to the net only under duress.

Sigh. I miss the old brilliance, and the new brilliance seems pale and monochromatic by comparison. But new racket technology and new coaching styles have given the edge to the baseliners, and there's no going back. In the meantime, Federer-Nadal is, indeed, as good as it gets.

POSTSCRIPT: Meanwhile, Tiger Woods is leading the British Open after chipping in for an eagle on the 14th, and Floyd Landis is a mere 30 seconds behind the leader in the Tour de France after a brilliant come-from-behind performance on Thursday. So there are plenty of Americans left to root for in other sports!

Kevin Drum 6:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

JOE AND THE BLOGS....Ezra Klein muses on the increasingly vitriolic backlash from the pro-Joe forces in the Lieberman-Lamont primary:

Often, when I drill down into anti-Lamonter motivations, I find their ideological and electoral motivations mere sandrock obscuring a core rage at this affront to tradition and orderly succession.

....In some ways, Lieberman is the canary in their coal mine, and if his sanctimonious song stops, so too may all of theirs. They never reacted this way to the Club for Growth primaries, or the Unions' promise to work against Melissa Bean, or NARAL's threats to primary Casey, because they were comfortable with the role and global motivations of those groups they were part of the structure, and they sought only to make it work better for them, not substantively challenge its mechanisms. The bloggers, however, are different, more unpredictable, less obviously invested in the perpetuation of this fine political system we have. And so they represent not a challenge to Joe Lieberman, but a challenge to the establishment as a whole. And that's why the establishment as a whole is howling.

Well, Ezra's been talking to these guys and I haven't, so I suppose there must be a kernel of truth to this. And perhaps there really is something to it. In our daily lives, we fear seemingly random violence (terrorism, kidnappings) more than we fear known threats (car accidents, bathtub drownings), even if the known threats are actually more objectively dangerous. Perhaps that's what's going on here. While a threat from NARAL or the Club for Growth is a known quantity that can be dealt with, no one has quite figured out what sorts of things might set off a blog lynch mob. If you knew, you could craft some clever plan to triangulate around it, but if you don't, you have to watch every word that comes out of your mouth, always in terror that you might say the one thing that gets them screaming for your head on a pike.

Or something like that. I'm just riffing here. But if this is true, it means blogs aren't really a long term threat after all. Someone just has to figure out how to predict their behavior better. And trust me on this someone will.

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIMARY COLORS....Back in the early 90s, when a friend told me that Europe was likely to approve plans for a single currency, I didn't believe it. Like peace in the Middle East, it was one of those things that people talked about constantly but never actually made much progress on. Needless to say, though, I was wrong. A few years after the Maastricht treaty was signed, the euro was introduced and it's been sailing happily along ever since.

This is pretty much the same way I feel about the endless talk of creating a new primary to be held before New Hampshire: we hear about this every four years, but then it slips silently away when the good people of the Granite State threaten to secede from the union if anyone dares to take their first-in-the-nation primary away from them.

But guess what? It looks like it's really going to happen. Apparently either Nevada or Arizona are the front runners. Prepare the fireworks!

I'm all for this, though not primarily because New Hampshire is so unrepresentative of the country as a whole. It's mainly because of comments like this:

The potential loss of pre-eminence for New Hampshire a state that demands retail politicking skills of its candidates has upset the state Democratic leaders and stirred resistance among some familiar names.

It's time once and for all to put an end to this. Modern national campaigns depend on media skills and large-scale organizing, not retail politics. That may or may not be a good thing, but it's reality, and maintaining a process that picks candidates who are good at retail politics but not necessarily good in a larger setting is insane.

Modern campaigns begin upwards of two years before the first vote is cast, and that's plenty of time to prepare for a truly national, media-based operation. It's penty of time even for small-state governors like Bill Clinton and Howard Dean. I say: front-load the schedule, make sure the first few primaries are from different regions, and find out which candidates are best at running the kind of campaign they're going to have to run if they want to win the general election. And may the best candidate win.

POSTSCRIPT: One question, though. How is it that the DNC gets to decide this stuff? Don't the Republicans have to agree as well? Arizona isn't going to run two separate primaries, after all.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (152)

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WIDENING THE WAR....I suppose this isn't unexpected, but it's hardly comforting either:

Israel called up a few thousand reservists today, in possible preparation for a more extensive ground operation in southern Lebanon, as its warplanes continued to hit targets there and to drop leaflets warning residents of villages to leave their homes and head northward.

The consensus theory here seems to be that Israel will spend a few weeks degrading Hezbollah's military capability and then withdraw, allowing an international peacekeeping contingent to patrol southern Lebanon. But that's harder than it sounds. Israel may well be able to destroy Hezbollah's watchtowers and some of its rocket launching capacity, but Hezbollah's ability to wage guerrilla war is unlikely to be seriously damaged. This means they'll keep fighting, which in turn means that Israel will find themselves unable to leave Lebanon since (a) they won't be willing to leave under fire and (b) no international peacekeeping force will take over unless there's a peace to keep.

This is pretty much what happened to the United States in Iraq. The original plan was to swoop in, destroy Saddam's army, and then withdraw all but a token force within six months. But the rising insurgency made that impossible and three years later we're still there. Likewise, Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon was also supposed to be a brief affair, and it ended up lasting 18 years.

This isn't to say the situations are precisely comparable, but they do have a certain disquieting assonance. Once a country introduces serious numbers of ground troops into a conflict, it's pretty much committed to staying until it can credibly declare victory, and in guerrilla wars that can commit them for a very long time. Ze'ev Schiff implies ("1982 versus 2006") that the Israeli government and the IDF are well aware of this and know what they're doing here. I sure hope he's right.

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (258)

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July 20, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

BAD HANDWRITING....The Institute of Medicine has released a report saying that 1.5 million Americans are harmed each year by mistakes in dispensing prescription drugs:

Mistakes in giving drugs are so prevalent in hospitals that, on average, a patient will be subjected to a medication error each day he or she fills a hospital bed, the report says....The extra medical costs of treating drug-related injuries occurring only in hospitals was estimated conservatively to be $3.5 billion a year.

The errors studied by the Institute included doctors writing illegible prescriptions....

Can we stop right there for a moment so I can ask a question? This is hardly the first time I've read that illegible prescriptions are a major cause of drug errors, and yet both doctors and the public have long treated bad handwriting by physicians as a joke of some kind. Why is that? It sure doesn't seem like a joking matter to me.

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By: Kevin Drum

STOCHASTIC BLOGGING....I found myself uninspired by the news today and unable to find anything I felt like blogging about, so instead I played hooky for a couple of hours and went to see A Scanner Darkly. It turned out to be interesting. And remarkably faithful to the book, too, which might not have been such a great idea, actually, since the drug culture of the 70s doesn't translate all that smoothly into the present day. What's more, as a resident of The OC, I found it oddly disconcerting that during one of the automobile sequences the scenery in the forward direction was taken from one stretch of freeway while the scenery in the backward direction was taken from a different stretch of freeway. However, I assume this won't bother the less anal-retentive of you, not to mention the 99.9% who don't live in Orange County.

(So, should you go see it? Beats me. I have a feeling this is the kind of film that you either like a lot or else find completely pointless. Hard to say which.)

Back on the blogging beat, I've gotten several emails asking if I'm going to comment on (a) stem cells and (b) the recent Pew study about bloggers. Since I don't have anything else bubbling up into my brain right now, I guess I will.

Stem cells: As you all know (or can guess from past posts about abortion), I find the idea that frozen embryos are "persons" to be a mechanistic view of human life so extreme as to be almost nihilistic. So naturally I think George Bush was wrong to veto the legislation allowing federal funding for new embryonic stem cell lines.

That's a bit boring, though, so I'll just add this: can we all please stop emphasizing that this was his first veto? I mean, he must be loving this. His first veto ever, and it's over stem cells! The morality of human life is his highest priority! It's exactly the message he wants to send to his base, and there's no reason for us to help him deliver it.

The Pew blogger survey: The survey is here, and I didn't find very much of interest in it. The age/gender/race distribution is about what you'd expect, the reasons for blogging are about what you'd expect, and everything else is about what you'd expect too. Yawn.

Except for one thing. According to the survey, 20% of bloggers say they either "often" or "sometimes" ask for permission to post copyrighted material. Really? I would have expected approximately 0%. Does anyone actually believe this statistic?

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By: Kevin Drum

GET OUT THE PITCHFORKS, PA, WE'RE HEADING TO TOWN!....Over at The Corner, even John Derbyshire thinks there's some evidence that the middle class isn't doing too well these days:

If the rich get richer while the middle class thrives, and some decent provision is made for the poor, I'm a happy man, living in a society I consider healthy and am proud of. If, however, the rich get richer while the middle class is struggling, or actually declining, I am not a happy man. There are some reasons to think that is happening, and you don't have to be a socialist to worry about this.

It is, perhaps, telling that Derbyshire's post sparked not a single response from his fellow conservatives. Even the neo-Lafferians at NRO seem a little too embarrassed by the whole thing to go through their usual exercise of digging up a few pseudo-statistics to demonstrate that, really, the middle class is going great guns under today's Republican leadership.

Alternatively, maybe they figure they don't have to bother. After all, liberals have been trying to get the country interested in rising income inequality for a couple of decades now, but with no luck. Steven Rattner, writing in the Wall Street Journal, suggests the day of reckoning may finally be here:

After months without a domestic agenda to capitalize on Bush administration unpopularity, Democrats are moving haltingly, disjointedly, belatedly toward embracing the mother of all electoral issues: the failure of robust top-line growth in the U.S. economy to filter into the wallets of Americans below the top of the pyramid.

....No amount of chaff can hide the failure of our remarkable productivity surge (and the accompanying robust growth of the overall economy) to meaningfully boost average wages, which have barely grown with inflation. Separated by income level, the picture is more dismal. From 2000 to 2005, for example, average weekly wages for the bottom 10% dropped by 2.7% (after adjustment for inflation), while those of the top 10% rose by 5.3%.

Rattner then goes on to talk approvingly about "thoughtful elements" of the Democratic party who are "carefully crafting solutions" to this problem. Unfortunately, this means that "haltingly, disjointedly, belatedly" is probably a pretty good description of what's going on.

Still, who knows? Maybe Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or some other Democratic worthy will start barnstorming the country asking middle class workers why their wages have barely budged during a period when the economy has nearly doubled. And perhaps that same worthy will suggest ever so delicately that it's largely because that's exactly the way the Republican Party likes it.

A man can dream, can't he?

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"IT WOULDN'T STOP A TRICYCLE"....Being attacked as a "fringe element" by Alan Keyes is sort of a special honor, like being condemned as "too sensationalistic" by Geraldo Rivera or "too greedy" by Duke Cunningham. So who received this signal honor today?

Answer: a dissident group of Minutemen, the guys who take lawn chairs to the Mexican border and keep an eye out for illegal immigrants trying to enter the country. Apparently, more than a few Minutemen claim that the group's president, Chris Simcox, has collected millions of dollars for border vigils and fence building and funneled it through an organization run by Keyes, never to be seen again. The Washington Times has the story:

Gary Cole, the Minutemen's former national director of operations...personally collected "tens of thousands of dollars" in donations during the 30-day border vigil. But despite numerous requests many directly to Mr. Simcox he was never told how much money had been collected or where it went.

....Mr. Cole said he was removed by Mr. Simcox as a national director after the April 2005 border campaign "for asking too many questions about the money."

....Mr. Keyes has financially endorsed and supported the Minuteman organization as programs of Declaration Alliance and the Declaration Foundation, another Virginia-based charitable organization that he heads. He accused internal MCDC critics of being "decidedly racist and anti-Semitic," saying they had been removed as members of the Minuteman organization.

....Even Mr. Simcox's much-ballyhooed fence project on the Arizona-Mexico border has come under fire, from both within and outside the MCDC organization. Critics said vast sums of money are being collected to build what has been described as an Israeli-style fence to keep out illegal aliens, but all that has been constructed is three miles of a five-strand barb-wired range fence on 2-inch metal poles.

One former Minuteman volunteer said the fence "wouldn't stop a tricycle."

Live by the fringe, die by the fringe. Simcox and Keyes say that a "fully accredited, independent auditor" is on the case and will report back soon. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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July 19, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HEZBOLLAH AND THE IDF, PART 2....Conservative pundits are seemingly united in their belief that Israel shouldn't leave Lebanon until Hezbollah is completely destroyed. Earlier today I asked if this was even feasible: "The IDF spent nearly two decades in Lebanon until Ehud Barak withdrew in 2000, and presumably was doing its very best during that time to destroy Hezbollah. But they weren't able to do it. So what's changed since then to make us think that the IDF can do it now?"

Via email, Aaron Rutkoff suggests that, conservative pundits to the contrary, utter destruction probably isn't the goal of the Israeli military:

I don't think anyone in the IDF believes a total elimination of Hezbollah is possible, even if Israeli forces had two decades instead of two weeks to pursue a military solution. But remember that in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the ill-conceived occupation that followed the aim wasn't to uproot the Shiite non-state militia of Hezbollah. Instead, the IDF circa 1982 wanted to uproot a secular non-state militia (the PLO under Arafat) and at least that original mission must be viewed as a success (Arafat and his army did flee en masse on slow boats to Tunis, after all). Hezbollah filled in the power vacuum the IDF's prolonged presence created in the south, and they managed to thwart the IDF only as a guerrilla hit-and-run movement, not as a quasi-military with established firing positions and whatnot.

What's changed since then is that Hezbollah in south Lebanon today is much more like the PLO of 1982 than the Hezbollah of the mid-90s. I've been there to the border. Hezbollah has military-style border outposts with its own yellow flags and watch towers. The IDF and the Hezbollah soldiers shadow each other, much like hostile armies do along international boundaries everywhere in the world. It does not seem inconceivable to me that the IDF could smash these sorts of hardened positions and severely degrade Hezbollah's missile-launching infrastructure (these are not crude Hamas-style rockets, after all, but more sophisticated imports from Iran).

In this way, Hezbollah may be reduced to a guerrilla army again. And then, presumably, the regular Lebanese army or (more likely, in my opinion) an EU-led force can replace Hezbollah on the border. So Hezbollah wouldn't be gone (none of the Haaretz analysts suggest this is even a remote possibility), but they just wouldn't be left ruling the southern boundary like they have been since the IDF left six years ago.

I'm not quite sure how the bombing of Beirut figures into this, but what do I know? In any case, this sounds like a pretty plausible answer: it's not a matter of destroying Hezbollah, just a matter of bombing them back to their guerrilla roots. Time will tell if this works.

Kevin Drum 7:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (368)

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By: Kevin Drum

EVACUATING LEBANON....Garance Franke-Ruta tries to shed some light on why the evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon is going so slowly:

Individuals within the State Department, I am told, have been reluctant to create an impression that the Israeli assault on Lebanon is as bad as it is or that civilian U.S. citizens are being threatened by U.S. ally Israel. If a conflict this severe had broken out in, say, Indonesia, the American embassy would have been shut down the next day and its personnel and families rapidly brought to safety....The diplomatic message sent by shutting down the U.S. embassy in the face of Israeli bombing would have contradicted the U.S. government message of support for the Israeli mission against Hezbollah terrorists.

I guess this sounds plausible. In theory, of course, the U.S. embassy really should be safe from Israeli bombs, right?

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (119)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEZBOLLAH AND THE IDF....OK, genuine question here. Hawkish commentators have been filling the airwaves and printwaves with declarations that the war in Lebanon can't end until Israel destroys Hezbollah once and for all. But putting aside for now the question of whether that's good policy a world without Hezbollah sure seems like a good idea what makes anyone think Israel can accomplish this? The IDF spent nearly two decades in Lebanon until Ehud Barak withdrew in 2000, and presumably was doing its very best during that time to destroy Hezbollah. But they weren't able to do it. So what's changed since then to make us think that the IDF can do it now?

UPDATE: More here.

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By: Kevin Drum

WAR....Ross Douthat, after quoting Evelyn Waugh about the all-too-human hunger for war, says wonderingly, "But you would think, wouldn't you, after three years knee-deep in Iraq, after all the best-laid-plans and good intentions have gone so far awry, that the romance of warmaking would have faded somewhat." In an update, he adds this:

I do think that the remarkable popularity among my fellow conservatives of [Michael] Ledeen's utterly-untethered-from-reality "faster, please" theory of Middle East affairs even after the various debacles associated with our Iraq policy does reflect the persistent appeal of a vision of foreign policy in which supporting war, war, and more war provides an appealing clarity, and a sense of moral superiority, amid the otherwise-difficult problems of modern political life, and the perplexing complexities of the global stage. At home and abroad, it allows you to cast everyone who disagrees with you as either an appeaser or an apologist for tyrants.

This reminded me of Etgar Keret's short essay in the New York Times about how he and his countrymen feel about the current war in Lebanon:

Its not that we Israelis long for war or death or grief, but we do long for those old days the taxi driver talked about. We long for a real war to take the place of all those exhausting years of intifada when there was no black or white, only gray....

Suddenly, the first salvo of missiles returned us to that familiar feeling of a war fought against a ruthless enemy who attacks our borders, a truly vicious enemy, not one fighting for its freedom and self-determination, not the kind that makes us stammer and throws us into confusion. Once again were confident about the rightness of our cause and we return with lightning speed to the bosom of the patriotism we had almost abandoned. Once again, were a small country surrounded by enemies, fighting for our lives, not a strong, occupying country forced to fight daily against a civilian population.

It is, often, not so much war itself that people long for, but the moral certainty that comes with it; thus the venom directed even toward those who are skeptical of war, let alone those who are resolutely opposed to it. It's not that the skeptics prevent the hawks from getting the war they want they usually don't but that they deny them the moral certainty they so desperately yearn for. And that cannot be tolerated.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

CIVIL WAR....Borzou Daragahi of the LA Times writes from Baghdad:

"The message is clear, and the message confirms the sectarian differences," said Fadhil Sharih, a leader of the Sadr movement. "It seems clear that it's been moving toward the direction of civil war."

...."What is happening in Iraq is a disaster and a tragedy," Adnan Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab leader, said in an interview. "It's bloodshed and killing of the innocents, killing the elderly and women and children. It's mass killings. It's nothing less than an undeclared civil war."

...."I start to feel the need to say that there is a civil war," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a Sunni politician, "in order to borrow the tools and solutions of past civil wars to apply them here, and to call upon the international community to deal with Iraq's problems on this basis."

.... "It is actually a civil war," said Ayad Samaraie, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "It is action and reaction. And it is increasing day after day."

Daragahi also reports that Sunni and Shiite leaders are "far from an accord and often seem to talk past one another in discussing solutions for ending the spiraling violence." There seems no end in sight, and no plan from the Bush administration to even acknowledge what's going on, let alone try something new to halt the violence. Have they literally given up?

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July 18, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

TALKING TO TEHRAN....Thomas P.M. Barnett writes about the wider conflict in the Middle East:

Our tie-down in Iraq is real, and everyone in the region knows it, so if we're not willing to engage the larger regional security agenda (and that's the signal we send with this myopic focus on WMD that's perverted our foreign and security policies almost like abortion has perverted our foreign aid agenda), then we give off the vibe that our diplomacy is fake, largely designed to buy time and consensus for ultimate military action. And guess what? The pigeons in question aren't going to wait around for that plan to unfold on Bush's watch, so they socialize their problem quite effectively through Hamas and Hezbollah.

As the NYT article pointed, it gets tough to seek diplomatic solutions when your basic foreign policy strategy is that we don't talk directly to rogues, we just threaten them and let others speak on our behalf.

....When I wrote last year in Esquire that Iran can basically veto our peace efforts in Beirut and Baghdad and Jerusalem, this is exactly what I had in mind. We go myopic, they socialize the problem, and our only option is diplomacy to achieve the same ends that we earlier vowed never to accept, or we fight, which we can't really pull off right now.

Iran remains the key, but this Administration hasn't expressed any interest in trying to unlock that particular door, so this war is what gets lobbed over the transom instead, and now Israel is running America's Middle East policy which is exactly where Tehran wants us.

Barnett is almost certainly too optimistic about what we could accomplish with Iran and far too cavalier about nuclear proliferation but this still seems mostly correct to me. Iran has always been central to the region, it has genuine interests that can be leveraged, and that means it's not impossible to negotiate with them. It's hard and getting harder but not impossible. And without them, stability in both Iraq and the broader Middle East will probably be forever unattainable. It's time to talk.

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THE -ING THING REVISITED....I wasn't really expecting Geoffrey Nunberg's "object+present participle" thesis to generate any response, but apparently it's more enthralling than I thought. Julian Sanchez has done some googling of his own, and he says Nunberg has it all wrong.

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RAISING THE TONE....Over at The New Republic, Ruth Franklin laments the flaccid nature of modern book reviewing (today's critics, she says, "seem to share a tacit understanding that it is somehow indecorous what used to be called bad form to come out and say that a book is bad"). Over at The Belgravia Dispatch, the dyspeptic Greg Djerejian does his best to show that, in the world of nonfiction scribbling, at least, high snark still lives:

If the current situation weren't so grave, one would have to chuckle at the going-ons at the Corner. Even J-Pod is having to rein in Michael Ledeen, who as is his cheery jingo wont, is getting carried away yet again ("Faster, please", the plaintive cow-wail rings out!), positively frothing at the mouth for us to attack Iran and Syria (Ledeen: "Is this not the time to go after the terrorist training camps in Syria and Iran?" [ed. note: followed by the inevitable, and so tiresome, Chamberlain analogy, assiduously lapped up by all the Churchill wannabes at various VDH-style troughs, doubtless]. Memo to Michael: The vast majority of Israelis themselves don't want to go into Syria, because nobody really has a clue who would replace Bashar Assad, and his successor could be even worse for the Israelis.

There is, unfortunately, nothing unfair about this (or the rest of the post, which doles out the same treatment to the rest of NRO's staff). I've been trawling through both The Corner and NRO's front-page essays more than usual lately, and the spittle-flecked hawkery has become truly Strangelovian in the past week. I don't think anyone over there has just up and recommended the business end of a Minuteman III as a prudent and proportional response to recent provocations from Damascus and Tehran but then again, I'm not sure the editors would turn down an essay exploring the option either. Those nukes don't do us any good just sitting in their silos, do they?

More here.

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DOJ AND THE NSA....A few months ago the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility tried to start up an internal investigation of the NSA's domestic spying program, but they were denied the security clearances necessary to look into it. How come?

"It was highly classified, very important and many other lawyers had access. Why not OPR?" asked [Arlen] Specter, R-Pa.

"The president of the United States makes the decision," Gonzales told the committee hearing, during which he was strongly criticized on a range of national security issues.

So it was a personal decision by Bush to quash the investigation. Even with longtime friend Alberto Gonzales in charge, Bush apparently didn't trust his own Department of Justice to investigate this program. One can only assume that he felt, with good reason, that there was a strong chance they'd conclude it was illegal.

Or, rather, I suppose it's more accurate to say that David Addington probably felt that way, and that therefore Dick Cheney also felt that way. And that was the end of the story.

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By: Zachary Roth

THE "-ING" THING...I wonder if Geoffrey Nunberg has ever spoken to a black person. Or at least watched the part of "Do the Right Thing," (script here) where the characters each in sequence recite a string of racial insults, using exactly the "-ing" construction Nunberg is talking about. That movie came out in 1989. The "-ing" form of insult seems like a pretty common and longstanding part of black vernacular. These characters may not be liberals in the latte-drinking sushi-eating sense but (with maybe the exception of the white cop) they're not political conservatives. I think Nunberg is kind of over-reaching here.

Zachary Roth 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WEDDING CAKE THEORY OF GAY MARRIAGE....Why do people oppose gay marriage? Is it because they value traditional gender roles or because they just don't like gays? Richard Thompson Ford suggested in Slate last week that it was the former (the "wedding cake" theory), but to my surprise it turns out there's some halfway reasonable data available to test this point. Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell has posted a quickie analysis from John Sides that pretty clearly suggests homophobia is far more to blame:

The results suggest that both attributes have a significant effect on attitudes towards gay marriage. So Ford is right, up to a point. HOWEVER, feelings towards gays have a much stronger effect on attitudes toward gay marriage.

When one shifts from strongly opposing equality for women to strongly supporting equality (i.e., the maximum possible shift on this scale), the probability of support for gay marriage increases by about .26. That is to say, the change that one will support gay marriage increases by 26%.

When one shifts from strong aversion to gays/lesbians to strong affinity for gays/lesbians (i.e., the maximum possible shift on this scale), the probability of support for gay marriage increases by about .74.

As Steve Labonne notes in comments, this is dog-bites-man stuff. Still, it's always nice to see the actual evidence, no?

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EUROPE AND LEBANON....The Telegraph reports on European proposals for ending the conflict in Lebanon:

Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, was already in Beirut to call for "an immediate truce", while President Jacques Chirac urged the creation of an international force with the "means of coercion".

Tony Blair supported the idea. He said: "The only way we are going to get a cessation of hostilities is if we have the deployment of an international force into that area that can stop the bombardment over into Israel and therefore give Israel a reason to stop its attacks on Hizbollah."

....Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, said that [Kofi] Annan hoped to send about 8,000 more troops, four times larger than the [current] Unifil contingent.

The European Union said that several members had expressed their readiness to send soldiers and President Vladimir Putin did not rule out Russian participation.

Two questions: (1) Are the Europeans really serious about this? (2) Would it work?

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By: Kevin Drum

LANGUAGE LOVING, PRESENT PARTICIPLE USING, INSULT MONGERING CONSERVATIVES....Over at Language Log, Geoffrey Nunberg explains that the -ing construct he highlights in the title of his new book Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show is a trope largely limited to conservatives:

The fact is that the right owns those object+present participle compounds, as surely as it owns values, media bias, the lapel-pin flag, and sentences that begin with "See...." In fact you could trace the whole history of the right's campaigns against liberals via those compounds from tree-hugging and NPR-listening back through the Nixon era's pot-smoking, bra-burning, draft-dodging, and America-hating, until you finally excavate the crude origins of the trope in nigger-loving, the ur-denunciation of white liberal sentimentality.

....Nowadays that sort of talk is kept alive chiefly by conservatives who never tire of reminding the good people of the heartland how much contempt liberals have for them. In her book Shut up and Sing, for example, Laura Ingraham writes that "mocking the pickup-driving, tobacco-chewing, shotgun-owning South is one of the elite rites of passage."

....But actually liberals rarely talk this way. On the Web, Volvo-driving liberal outnumbers pickup- or truck-driving conservative by around 50 to 1, and when you do encounter a phrase like beer-guzzling redneck it's almost always offered either as a conservative caricature of liberal speech or in the spirit of a reclaimed epithet (as in, "...and proud of it, son!")

I can't say that that had ever occurred to me before. Surely we can think of some object+present participle insults of our own? But clean ones, please.....

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July 17, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES....I'm re-reading A Scanner Darkly in preparation for going to see the movie, and it got me to thinking about movies made from science fiction novels. Mainly, it got me wondering why there aren't any.

I don't mean that literally, of course, but there are sure darn few, especially considering (a) how important mainstream novels have been to the history of cinema and (b) how successfully fantasy novels (Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter) and comic books (Spider Man, Men in Black, Batman) have been made into movies recently.

And yet, not a single novel by, say, Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein [oops, see update below], Lois McMaster Bujold, or Frederik Pohl has been made into a movie. (At least, not one that was successful enough that I've heard of it.) The most famous sf novel I can think of that was made into a movie was Dune, and it was an embarrassing flop.

So here's a question: what's the most successful adaptation of a science fiction novel for the screen? 2001 doesn't count since it was written concurrently with the movie, and I'm thinking of novels that were marketed in their time as genre sf, which eliminates War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park and Planet of the Apes. (Though I guess I'm not sure about that last one. Was PotA marketed as genre sf?) Among the movies that I can think of off the top of my head, Box Office Mojo says Solaris earned $15 million domestically, Dune earned $30 million, and Blade Runner earned $31 million.

Can anyone think of a movie version of an sf novel that did better? And why the weak performance of sf compared to both fantasy and mainstream novels?

POSTSCRIPT: Speaking of sf adaptations (though from a short story, not a novel), did anyone here see the David Birney verson of Nightfall when it was first released? It's the only movie I've been to where the audience spontaneously broke into Rocky Horror-style hooting at the screen about halfway through and not a single person complained. We all just joined in.

UPDATE: Lots of short stories are being mentioned in comments, but we're looking for novel adaptations here. For example, Robert Heinlein's Puppet Masters, a bomb at $8 million, and Starship Troopers, which I must have been trying to blot from my memory. It made $54 million. Other plausible candidates include The Postman, an abysmal failure at $17 million; Contact, which made $100 million; and A Clockwork Orange and On the Beach, though I'm not sure either one counts as genre sf.

More good candidates from later in the comment thread: Soylent Green, Battlefield Earth ($21 million), Invasion of the Body Snatchers ($24 million), and Logan's Run. Looks like Contact is the big winner so far, though.

Kevin Drum 11:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (237)

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SO HOW ARE WE DOING?....Via Cato, here is Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker on how we're doing in Iraq:

The question was, do I think we're winning in Iraq?....

[Long silence, sound of papers shuffling.]

I, yknow....

[Another silence.]

I think I would answer that by telling you I dont think were losing.

I think a long silence is the only appropriate response.

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ISRAEL AND THE BLOGOSPHERE REVISITED....Markos Moulitsas sympathizes today with my reasons for not blogging much about Israel-related subjects, but I nonetheless have to take issue with this:

I grew up in a war zone. And there was one clear lesson I learned there will never be peace unless both sides get tired of the fighting and start seeking an alternative.

It's clear that in the Middle East, no one is sick of the fighting. They have centuries of grudges to resolve, and will continue fighting until they can get over them. And considering that they obviously have no interest in "getting over them", we're stuck with a war that will not end in any forseable future. It doesn't matter what we bloggers say. It doesn't matter what the President of the United States says. Or the United Nations. Or the usual bloviating gasbag pundits.

It's one thing for an individual blogger to feel inadequate to the task of commenting on any particular subject, but I don't think that means it's OK to throw in the towel entirely and give everyone else a pass at the same time. As past officeholders have shown, it does matter what the president of the United States says (and does), and it does matter what the UN and other international actors say (and do). After all, even if they can't pull lasting peace and harmony out of their back pockets, they always retain the possibility of making things worse. (See Bush, George, 2001-2006, op cit.) Matt Yglesias adds a bit more on this:

For one thing, like it or not the United States is involved. We give an awful lot of money to Israel, and we also give a nice chunk of change to Egypt to help underwrite the Egypt-Israel peace accords. Our policy to Jordan is also linked to Jordan's relatively favorable attitude toward Israel. Conversely, the two countries in the region with whom we have the most hostile relationships Syria and Iran are not coincidentally the two countries that support rejectionist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Israel issues, in other words, aren't just Israel issues. They link up with the other topics in the key region of the "war on terror." Israel policy is also related to larger issues about the Non-Proliferation Agreement and so forth. Wherever one comes down on Israel in the end, it's just not possible to outline a progressive approach to the national security issues of the day without engaging to some extent with the Israel issue.

My post this weekend about Israel was mainly a personal explanation for my own light blogging on this topic, but it was also sort of a sheepish admission that my explanation wasn't really very good. Like it or not, we can't run away from this stuff.

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WHAT TO DO IN IRAQ, ROUND 2....In Round 1 of our recent mini-debate in Foreign Affairs about Iraq, I argued that since nobody had come up with any credible plan for military success in Iraq, it made no sense to keep up a military presence forever. What's the point of doing something that nobody really seems to believe will work, after all?

So how did my fellow roundtablers feel about this? Round 2 is now up, and Marc Lynch reluctantly agrees: "Washington's credibility is so low, its presence so inflammatory, that virtually any initiative under an American brand name will generate resistance. For these reasons, therefore, I have regretfully come to the conclusion that although much would depend on the terms, context, and execution of it a gradual U.S. withdrawal seems like the least bad option still available."

Fred Kaplan halfway agrees: "I see no problem with substantial withdrawals of, say, at least half the U.S. forces by early '07 or with setting benchmarks for reducing even more....A viable Iraqi government [will need our help] for training, logistics, air support, intelligence, and border protection....A core deployment of roughly 30,000 U.S. personnel is required for these missions, even if all the other troops come home."

(I don't disagree with this, by the way. A large-scale U.S. presence is unsustainable and counterproductive for a variety of reasons, but a smaller presence, assuming the Iraqi government genuinely wants it, might very well be beneficial for everyone involved.)

Christopher Hitchens, unsurprisingly, disagrees entirely: "The United States can contemplate leaving Iraqis to settle their sharp internal differences by themselves, but it cannot abandon them to a victory for clerical and political fascism....If our calculations become unduly inflected by considerations of American domestic opinion, then both Iraqis and foreign intruders (and their state backers in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia) have only to set their watches and begin making their respectively pessimistic and gloating dispositions."

And me? Instead of talking about withdrawal again, I decided to hopscotch over to one of my other hobbyhorses, namely the fact that it's nuts for us to refuse even to talk with Iran. As the events of the past couple of weeks have made even clearer than before, Iran is central to any kind of long-term stability in both Iraq and the broader Middle East, and like it or not, we need to deal with them. The longer we wait, the harder it will be.

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LAFFING AT YOU, NOT WITH YOU....President Bush and his conservative enablers have been gleeful about the news that tax revenues are higher than the White House projected back in February. As Thomas Nugent puts it, "The supply-side Bush tax cuts of 2003 worked. The Laffer curve, and the notion that if you tax something less you get more of it, also worked. Hurrah!"

Indeed. But Greg Ip and Deborah Solomon point out something a bit peculiar today in the Wall Street Journal. (The news pages, that is. You won't find this on the editorial page.) Here's the conundrum: if tax revenues are 5% higher than projected thanks to the economy-boosting magic of tax cuts, shouldn't the economy itself be larger than projected too? But it's not. Economic growth is only 0.1% higher than projected six months ago.

So what happened? If the economy is growing at the expected rate, where's all the extra tax money coming from?

What has changed isn't the size of the economy, but how the economic pie is divided. The share of national income going to corporations and the wealthiest individuals, already large, has expanded, while the share going to typical wage earners has shrunk. Because corporations and the wealthy generally pay income tax at higher rates than does the typical wage earner, that shift benefits the federal Treasury.

....The administration has raised its estimate of corporate profits this year by 11%, but trimmed its estimate of wage and salary income by 1%....Individual income taxes were revised up 7%, with the increase primarily from wealthier taxpayers. Payroll taxes for Social Security, levied only on the first $94,200 of wage income, and Medicare are expected to total 1% less than expected.

So, the tax windfall is another piece of evidence that income inequality in the U.S. continues to grow, which in turn may explain why the average American still gives President Bush low marks on the economy despite its overall strength.

If you pursue policies that increase income inequality, then corporations and the rich will have more money. If the rich have more money, they'll pay more taxes. And since tax rates are progressive, that means tax revenue will be higher than you'd expect if you based your estimates solely on the overall rate of economic growth.

Could this explain why "the average American" is not ecstatic over this month's alleged vindication of the Laffer Curve? Namely that "the average American" is actually worse off than before even though the overall economy is growing nicely? I think it could!

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (171)

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PEAS IN A POD....Compare and contrast:

John McCain on Iraq: "One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit.'"

George Bush on Lebanon: "What they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over."

No wonder Bush and McCain are so friendly these days. They both have the same finely nuanced view of world affairs.

By the way, did you notice something else Bush said in his little open-mike chat with Tony Blair? After a plea from Blair that the United States get involved in the Lebanon situation, he replied, "I think Condi is going to go pretty soon."

"I think"? Doesn't he know? Or is he just taking a wild guess about what his Secretary of State might feel like doing at some point in the unknowable future?

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TERRORISM AND DIPLOMACY....Sebastian Mallaby praises India and criticizes Israel for their recent responses to terrorist attacks. Here's his take on Israel:

Almost everybody understands that failed states are good for terrorists. With their bitter experience of the Palestinian territories and the Lebanon of old, Israelis ought to grasp that better than anyone. But their leaders seem determined to re-create a failed state to their north. They complain that the Lebanese government has failed to rein in Hezbollah terrorists, then destroy the infrastructure that provides that same Lebanese government with its only chance of functioning.

....Israel's iron-fist approach is partly a poor bet: a gamble that bombing will smash the terrorists' structures, even though they are more likely in practice to smash civilian ones, radicalizing the Arab world and undermining the moderates who seek peace with modernity. But to be fair to Israel, its military offensive also reflects the absence of a viable diplomatic option. There already is a U.N. resolution calling for Hezbollah to be disarmed, but the big powers show no interest in applying the muscle to make disarmament happen.

He then goes on to criticize Russia, China, and Western Europe more generally: "These powers are happy to criticize unilateralism and belligerence at every turn. But when there's a chance to make diplomacy work, they call for U.S. leadership and hide behind the curtains."

Some of Mallaby's criticism strikes me as silly. Does anyone really think that if France had taken Iraqi sanctions more seriously in the 90s that George Bush wouldn't have invaded Iraq in 2003? Please. And on the multilateral diplomacy front, the United States surely bears a considerable part of the blame for the recent debasement of international institutions as vehicles for collective action.

And yet....Mallaby still has a point, doesn't he? Read the whole thing and tell me what you think.

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SIGNING STATEMENTS AND JUDICIAL REVIEW....Richard Epstein explains in the Chicago Tribune why he's disturbed by President Bush's lavish and unorthodox use of presidential signing statements. He thinks it's the first step in a new theory that justifies circumvention of the congressional and judicial checks built into the constitution:

Modern understanding of judicial review requires the executive branch to take its marching orders from the Supreme Court. Signing statements, I fear, could be the opening wedge to a presidential posture that judicial decisions may limit the president's ability to use courts to enforce his policies, but cannot stop him from acting unilaterally. On this theory, the president could continue to order wiretaps and surveillance in opposition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act after a court had determined that he has exceeded his powers he just couldn't use the evidence acquired in court. Different branches of government have different views of the law, yet the executive marches on. A major check on executive power goes by the boards.

Over at The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru is unpersuaded:

I'm sympathetic enough to coordinate construction, and hostile enough to the "modern understanding of judicial review," not to be frightened by the bottom of this particular slippery slope. If Congress or a court purported to order the president (or one of his agents) to exceed his constitutional powers, for example, it would probably be right for the president to disobey.

Hell, even Nixon turned over the tapes when the Supreme Court told him to and God knows what would have happened if he'd stuck to his executive privilege guns and told the court to pound sand. I think I'll stick with the modern understanding of judicial review, thank you very much.

Kevin Drum 12:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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July 16, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE INVISIBLE SUPERPOWER....Marc Lynch on the U.S. response to the current turmoil in the Middle East:

American public diplomacy has been virtually invisible on all this, at a time when it is more urgently needed than ever. I can understand this you have to have a policy if you want to try to explain or defend it, and right now the Bush administration doesnt seem to have any policy at all beyond supporting Israel and issuing calls for restraint which Israel promptly and publicly rejects. And what administration official wants to subject him or herself to tough Arab questioning on live TV right now? The idea that Palestinian-Israeli relations could be cordoned off from wider Middle East questions was always misguided. Its now become actively destructive to all of our interests in the region.

The only reason Im not calling more loudly for Bush to get involved and take a leadership role in the conflict is the expectation that he would probably do the wrong thing. But at this point, doing nothing is, in fact, doing something. The Bush administration right now looks weak, confused, and vaguely pathetic... which is better than batshit crazy (like the folks who are demanding that America either smile on or even join in a war with Damascus and/or Tehran), but not nearly as good as exercising actual grown-up leadership at a time when the world could really, really use some.

Read the whole thing for some broader musings about how the Arab media, Arab public, and Arab regimes are responding to events in Lebanon and Israel. And then read this too.

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UNINFORMED SALES CLERKS....Tyler Cowen makes the case today that sometimes uninformed sales clerks are a blessing. Perhaps so although I think he's being unduly optimistic in the final sentence of his post.

I'm notorious among my friends for refusing to ever ask sales clerks for help if I can conceivably avoid it. They mock me for this, but here's how I keep score: every time they ask a clerk for help and get steered the wrong way, I get a point. Every time I wander around aimlessly (and fruitlessly) because of my stubborn refusal to ask for help, they get a point.

Here's how the game works. A few days ago in a grocery store, a friend asked a clerk whether they had peaches. The clerk stroked his chin, stared at the ceiling, and said he didn't think so, but if they did have them they'd be over there. I got not one, but three points for this encounter because (a) he was a produce clerk working in the produce section, and he didn't know whether they carried peaches, (b) he didn't know where they'd be if they did have them, and (c) he was wrong. They did have peaches and they were located about five feet from where he was standing when we asked about them.

More generally, my clerk-ophobia is due to the fact that sales clerks are often both (a) ignorant and (b) genuinely eager to help. This is a terrible combination, because these well-meaning souls insist on wasting boatloads of your time even when it's clear after only a few seconds that they don't know enough to be helpful. Unless you stop them quickly enough, they'll drag you off to conversations with other equally clueless clerks, ask you to wait while they "check the back room," noodle around witlessly with their computer, or scurry around the aisles while you trail along helplessly. I hate this with a passion.

Now, at this point you're probably thinking that I sound like a bit of a jerk about this. And you're right. Why, just a couple of months ago a clerk at Circuit City was very helpful while I was shopping for a laptop computer for my sister. (He was the second clerk we talked to, but still. He was very good and sold us neither more nor less than we needed.) But we all have things we're jerks about, and this is mine. And I figure it doesn't really hurt anybody since I merely avoid clerks. It's not as if I'm actively rude to them or anything.

And in case you're wondering, yes, I used to be a sales clerk myself. And I hated it. So I guess this cuts both ways.

Kevin Drum 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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WHAT DO YOU MEAN "WE," ANNE?....Wow. This is one of the most dishonest pieces of reporting I've seen in a long time. Atrios has the details.

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COMPROMISE?....The Washington Post got it right yesterday in their editorial about Arlen Specter's supposed "compromise" bill about domestic surveillance:

The bill's most dangerous language would effectively repeal FISA's current requirement that all domestic national security surveillance take place under its terms....Any reasonable court looking at this bill would understand it as withdrawing the nearly three-decade-old legal insistence that FISA is the exclusive legitimate means of spying on Americans. It would therefore legitimize whatever it is the NSA is doing and a whole lot more.

....The bill even makes a hash out of the generally reasonable idea of transferring existing litigation to the FISA court system. It inexplicably permits the FISA courts to "dismiss a challenge to the legality of an electronic surveillance program for any reason" such as, say, the eye color of one of the attorneys.

This bill is not a compromise but a full-fledged capitulation on the part of the legislative branch to executive claims of power.

Yep.

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PRESIDENTIAL SIGNING STATEMENTS....Twenty years ago, as a lawyer in the Reagan administration, Samuel Alito pioneered the use of presidential signing statements as a way of expanding executive power at the expense of Congress. Since then, though, these statements have been largely ignored by the Supreme Court.

Today Samuel Alito is on the Supreme Court, and the Boston Globe's Charlie Savage points out that the dissent in the Hamdan case includes the following from Antonin Scalia:

"Of course in its discussion of legislative history the court wholly ignores the president's signing statement, which explicitly set forth his understanding that the [Detainee Treatment Act] ousted jurisdiction over pending cases," Scalia wrote.

In a footnote, Scalia also included the text of Bush's signing statement on the law. In the statement, Bush instructed government lawyers to file briefs arguing that the new law stripped courts of the power to hear "existing" detainee lawsuits, although the text of the law did not say it was meant to apply retroactively.

Alito and Clarence Thomas joined the dissent, and Chief Justice John Roberts probably would have as well if he hadn't recused himself from the case. The pioneer of the presidential signing statement is apparently busy lobbying his colleagues to give these statements the same weight they traditionally give to legislative history.

Of course, the whole point of legislative history is that it happens before a bill is passed, and is thus part of the compromise and debate that fashions the bill in the first place. Presidential signing statements, by contrast, are unilateral statements that are not debated or even seen by anyone before they pop out of the Oval Office like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.

So how does this play out? Currently, legislation is written as a compromise not just between legislators, but between legislators and the president. It's Congress that debates the bill, but the president influences its wording partly by appeals to fellow party members and partly by threats of a veto. That negotiation is all part of the bill's legislative history.

But if the Supreme Court decides that post-debate signing statements should also be routinely considered as part of a bill's legislative history, then surely Congress will start to insist on negotiating these statements before legislation is sent to the president for his signature. I'll bet John McCain wishes he had done that on the torture bill that George Bush so casually gutted after months of arduous negotiation.

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July 15, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

K STREET BOUNCES BACK....This is really all you need to know about new House Majority Leader John Boehner and his dedication to ending the culture of K Street corruption within the Republican Party:

Tapping a rich vein of longstanding relationships with lobbyists and their corporate clients, Mr. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has raised campaign contributions at a rate of about $10,000 a day since February, surpassing the pace set by former Representative Tom DeLay after he became majority leader in 2002, a review of federal filings shows.

Italics mine. Read the rest if you have the stomach for it.

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PUBLIC vs. PRIVATE....The Department of Education has released a new report on the quality of education offered by public schools vs. private schools. The release was timed for Friday and, according to the New York Times, "was made with without a news conference or comment from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings."

If this suggests to you that public schools came out OK in this new study, you'd be right. Basically, it was a review of NAEP scores in math and reading that was controlled for things like gender, race, English proficiency, poverty level, etc. Here are the average scores for public schools compared to private schools:

  • 4th grade reading: +1.1 points.

  • 4th grade math: +4.1 points.

  • 8th grade reading: -5.7 points.

  • 8th grade math: +0.6 points.

This obviously suggests that private schools haven't discovered a magic bullet for educational reform, despite what their supporters might sometimes claim. Still, I don't think this report is exactly cause for breaking out champagne among public school champions.

First, there's that 8th grade reading score, which is a whopping 5.7 points (about half a grade level) below that of private schools. That's a big difference.

Second, these scores confirm a widely-reported and disturbing trend: public schools seem to do OK at the elementary level, but student scores start to drop significantly in secondary school. In this study, the delta between public and private schools dropped 6.8 points in reading and 3.5 points in math between 4th and 8th grades. If the study had been extended to 11th grade, I suspect that decline would have continued.

I don't have any answers here except for a guess: namely that the pedagogy wars don't really matter much. Phonics vs. whole word? New math vs. old? Open classrooms vs. strict discipline? Without disparaging the people who work hard trying to figure this stuff out, it seems as if practically any of these approaches can succeed or fail depending on how well they're implemented.

But what does seem to show up over and over again is the effect of concentrated poverty. Nearly everything I've read suggests that when the number of kids in poverty reaches about 50% in a school, teaching becomes nearly impossible and that this matters much more in secondary school than in elementary school.

Unfortunately, nobody has any good answers for this, so instead we mostly fuss around on the edges. Any suggestions?

Kevin Drum 2:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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ISRAEL AND THE BLOGOSPHERE.....Via email, Matt Yglesias suggests that I address the topic of why the liberal blogosphere doesn't write very much about Israel-related subjects. I can only speak for myself, of course, and my own reasons for light blogging on this subject are both predictable and banal. Still, here they are:

  1. It sparks unusually vicious comment threads, something this blog hardly needs since comments here spin out of control often enough anyway. Needless to say, this phenomenon is fairly universal. For examples, see here and here.

    (In case you're curious, the other subjects that seem to spawn more venom than usual are posts related to religion or feminism.)

  2. The fight between Israel and the Palestinians is over half a century old and seems intractable. It follows the same rhythms decade after decade, full of hypocrisy and posturing from both camps, and there seems little to say about it that doesn't eventually boil down to, "Both sides need to ratchet down the rhetoric and rein in their own extremists." Aside from being pointless, there are only just so many ways you can say this.

    (NB: This may be a plausible excuse for inaction coming from a pundit or a blogger, but it's worth pointing out that it's not a plausible excuse for a president of the United States. Are you listening, George?)

  3. The conflict is fantastically complex, and the partisans on both sides are mostly people who have been following events with fanatical attention to detail for many decades. Ordinary observers can hardly compete in this atmosphere do you know the detailed history and long-accepted norms of behavior that have developed in the conflict over the Shebaa Farms since 1967? and this has produced an almost codelike language of its own over the years. One misuses this code at ones peril (see #5 below).

  4. As with the conflict itself, punditry is heavily dominated by extremists on both sides. I normally take my cues on subjects I'm inexpert in from people whose sensibilities are similar to mine, but it's nearly impossible to figure out who those people might be in this case.

  5. Related to 1 and 3, posts that display any sense of sympathy for the Palestinians run the risk of provoking a shitstorm of accusations of anti-semitism. (I gather that the opposite is more frequently the case in Europe.) Language is actually as big a problem as substance here, since words and phrases that are used innocently often have specific meanings to longtime partisans that are unknown to the rest of us.

I guess that's about it. As usual, however, I'd add that liberals have a bigger problem here than conservatives. As near as I can tell, most conservatives simply take the uncomplicated stance that Palestinians are terrorists and that Israel should always respond to provocation in the maximal possible way. The fact that this hasn't worked very well in the past doesn't deter them. Liberals don't really have a similarly undemanding position that's suitable for the quick-hit nature of blogging.

Of course, in the same email Matt pointed out that "you can't hermetically seal Israel issues off from Iraq issues or Iran issues or even really big-picture questions about what our general attitude toward the war on terrorism or the United Nations ought to be." True enough. Maybe we should all be trying harder and not letting feeble excuses like #1-5 get in our way. I'm not making any promises, though.

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IRAN'S ROLE REVISITED YET AGAIN....Over at the Prospect, Laura Rozen interviews Mark Perry, co-director of the Conflicts Forum, a group that has set up frequent discussions with Hezbollah over the past three years. Here's what he has to say about Iran's involvement with the recent attacks on Israel:

Weve been hearing the theory that the timing of Hezbollahs Tuesday kidnapping of the two Israeli Defense Force soldiers was planned well in advance and with coordination from Tehran or Damascus. Can you speak to that?

Oy vey. There are a lot of people in Washington trying to walk that story back right now, because its not true.

Hezbollah and Israel stand along this border every day observing each other through binoculars and waiting for an opportunity to kill each other. They are at war. They have been for 25 years, no one ever declared a cease-fire between them....They stand on the border every day and just wait for an opportunity. And on Tuesday morning there were two Humvees full of Israeli soldiers, not under observation from the Israeli side, not under covering fire, sitting out there all alone. The Hezbollah militia commander just couldnt believe it so he went and got them.

I think that's about the end of this discussion for me at least for the time being. It's evident that the most knowledgeable people around have wildly different opinions about this, but also that those same people have no specific evidence one way or the other. Iran and Syria are sponsors of Hezbollah and Hamas and are obviously closely aligned with their actions, but whether they actively approved of the recent kidnappings appears to be unknown. And, for now anyway, unknowable.

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July 14, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

A BAGHDAD QUIZ....Here's an idle question on a deadly serious subject. Suppose Iraq melts down completely. Baghdad turns into a killing field, a hundred thousand people die, and entire neighborhoods are razed. After a year or two of this, the Kurds have control of Kirkuk and are safe in Kurdistan, the Shiite militias emerge victorious in the rest of the country, and the Sunni population is decimated. There is a government in place, but in reality Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani calls the shots from his rooms in Najaf.

Got that? I'm not saying this is what will happen, I'm just suggesting that it's a distinct possibility. So here's the question: if this is how things turn out, what will be the primary conservative storyline to explain what really happened?

  1. Insufficient force and resolve were brought to bear. We should have turned Fallujah into a modern-day Dresden.

  2. The media undermined the war effort. The terrorists knew they only had to wait us out.

  3. Iraqis are still better off than they were under Saddam, and Los Angeles hasn't been nuked. Liberals don't understand a victory when they see one in front of their eyes.

  4. We were wrong about the efficacy of force in creating liberal democracies. We're now sadder but wiser.

Just kidding about that last one, of course. But take your pick of the others. Or add your own!

Kevin Drum 7:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (205)

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BLOGGING THE BIBLE....Back in May, when David Plotz set out to read the Bible and blog about it on Slate, I suggested snarkily that Plotz would be "lucky to make it past the two-week mark." I was wrong.

Two months have passed, and Plotz is still at it. He is slowing down, mind you, compressing the entire first half of Leviticus into a single post, but he's still at it. Only 63 books to go!

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KATHERINE HARRIS, FRUIT LOOP....Say what? Did Katherine Harris who lost her entire campaign staff again this week actually call Republican donors last year and warn them not to support a possible Senate run by Joe Scarborough because he might have been involved with the death of an intern who worked for him in 2001? Apparently so.

"Insane" is probably too kind a word. The full story is here.

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REDISTRICTING IN CALIFORNIA....I voted against the redistricting initiative on the California ballot last year because I eventually concluded that it was just a little too cute in the way it tipped the balance of power in favor of Republicans. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger is apparently going to try again, this time proposing an easing of term limits as the bait:

Schwarzenegger said in an interview Thursday he does not believe term limits have improved Sacramento's political culture....One idea already under consideration in the Legislature would double the number of years members could serve in the Assembly to 12 from six provided they not run for the Senate when their term is up. Senators' maximum service could be extended to 12 years from eight.

....Schwarzenegger says that he wants to make California elections more competitive, and that a new method of redistricting would help. He is backing a measure by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) that would transfer political map-making powers to a panel of 11 citizens, chosen by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and judges, and take effect after the 2010 census.

This strikes me as a far superior alternative. I support term limits, but California's are simply too short, producing a legislature with little independent expertise and far too much dependence on staff and lobbyists. Increasing term limits to 12 years would produce a better legislature while still preventing the career-itis that term limits are designed to eliminate.

Likewise, a little more buffering between the redistricting panel and the legislature is probably a good idea, as is the agreement to have this take effect after the next census in 2010. The major remaining detail is defining the limitations on how districts can be drawn, an area ripe for mischief. But this is a case where a legislative referendum is superior to a citizen initiative, since Lowenthal's bill can make progress only if Democrats and Republicans both satisfy themselves that the rules are reasonably fair. There won't be a repeat of last year's attempt to unilaterally draft subtle rules that favor one party over the other with voters then told to take it or leave it.

There's no telling if Lowenthal's bill will go anywhere, since even the carrot of increased term limits might not be enough to get legislators to give up their redistricting power. But it's a promising effort.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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IRAN'S ROLE REVISITED....For what it's worth, the LA Times has an article today about whether or not Iran and Syria ordered the recent attacks against Israel or merely stood back and allowed them to happen. The answer, unsurprisingly, is inconclusive, though the consensus seems to lean toward Hezbullah and Hamas planning the attacks themselves ("I don't have evidence that there were direct instructions," said one Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But they were under the influence of the Iranian government.") In any case, I thought I'd point to this morning's LAT piece since I was asking about exactly this question last night.

UPDATE: See also Michael Young in the New York Times on the same subject.

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IRAN'S ROLE....Kenny Baer writes about the latest explosion of violence in the Middle East:

The kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit by Hamas was alarming enough, and the unprovoked, premeditated attack by Hezbollah over the northern border only deepened that feeling rapidly and uneasily. Considering that both attacks were green-lighted by Iran, what becomes clear is that Iran is asserting itself as a regional player and making it clear to the world as the UN Security Council debates its future that there is a real price to messing with them. That is, this whole situation is much bigger than the Israelis and their terrorist antagonists.

Is this becoming the conventional wisdom about what's going on? That both attacks were not merely carried out by Iranian allies, but actually masterminded by the Iranians as warning shots across the American bow? David Ignatius seems to endorse this view as well:

That's the new part of this crisis that Iranian-backed radicals deliberately opened another front in a war that, in their minds, stretches from Gaza to Iraq.

....In the Lebanon crisis we have a terrifying glimpse of the future: Iran and its radical allies are pushing toward war. That's the chilling reality behind this week's events. On Tuesday the Iranians spurned an American offer of talks on their nuclear program; on Wednesday their Hezbollah proxy committed what Israel rightly called "an act of war." The radicals want to lure America and Israel deeper into the killing ground, confident that they have the staying power to prevail. We should not play their game.

Most of the other commentary I've read suggests that Iran (and Syria) were probably aware of the planned attacks but didn't engineer them. I'm not sure which to believe at this point, but I'll keep reading.

UPDATE: I see that Matt Yglesias is wondering the same thing. Matt is suspicious, noting that "a lot of people have been agitating for the United States to commence more active efforts to overthrow the Syrian and Iranian governments for some time now. Then some stuff happened and miraculously and without real evidence that stuff's occurence is suddenly the reason we need to implement the very same policy that was being pushed for previously. I'd like to see some proof."

For obvious reasons this is a compelling argument, and it's exactly what I'd think if I were reading this stuff from Charles Krauthammer or William Kristol. But Baer and Ignatius don't strike me as mouthpieces for either PNAC or the White House.

UPDATE 2: A "knowledgable colleague" tells Laura Rozen: "The Israelis claim this is all planned by Iran and Syria via Hamas and Hezbollah. And the fact is that both groups have said that they were not responding to the recent killing of civilians in Gaza but that their elaborate kidnapping plots were in the works for months, which the Israelis claim dates to a summit between Assad and Ahmadinejad in Damascus in January. This might be a little too neat but expect the drumbeat against Tehran's terrorism sponsoring to escalate as the nuke issue heats up..."

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July 13, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

NSA FOLLIES, CONT'D....Arlen Specter has completed "tortuous" negotiations with the White House on a new bill that will require the president to submit the NSA's domestic spying program to the FISA court for review. That might be a welcome smidgen of progress except for one thing: it turns out that "require" isn't actually the right word.

An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the bill's language gives the president the option of submitting the program to the intelligence court, rather than making the review a requirement.

The official said that Bush will submit to the court review as long the bill is not changed, adding that the legislation preserves the right of future presidents to skip the court review.

Let me get this straight. Specter's bill gives Bush the "option" of submitting the NSA program to the FISA court for review, and Specter has a handshake agreement with the White House that Bush will, in fact, submit it. What's more, it's a one-time deal that affects no other program and no future president.

What's the point of this? The president already has the "option" of submitting the NSA program to the FISA court for review. He can do it anytime he wants. I'm a little mystified about exactly what this legislation is supposed to accomplish.

UPDATE: CNN reports some additional details:

In addition, the legislation would give the administration greater flexibility in making emergency applications to the FISA court, expanding its window for doing so from three to seven days. Currently, applications must be made by the attorney general or a deputy; the bill would allow a designee to make an application, Specter said.

The measure would allow for roving wiretaps instead of taps of a phone at a fixed point, he said, and spells out that monitoring a telephone call between two overseas locations that is transmitted through a U.S. terminal would not be subject to FISA approval.

So the bill loosens requirements for wiretaps, thus giving the president more authority than he already has, and in return requires nothing new in the way of judicial review. Those must have been some truly tortuous negotiations, all right.

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THE LATEST ON RALPH REED....GQ has a profile of Ralph Reed in its current issue that begins with a description of a scam that Jack Abramoff came up with when he discovered that one of his clients, the Tigua tribe, was apparently too broke to pay his fee:

Abramoff came up with a way for his marks to continue paying him: the Tigua Elder Legacy Project. Abramoff would arrange, at no cost to the tribe, a life-insurance policy for every Tigua 75 or older. When those elders died, the death benefits would be paid to Eshkol Academy, a private school Abramoff had founded near Washington. Eshkol, in turn, would then pay Abramoffs fee to continue lobbying on behalf of the surviving Tiguas. Morbid opportunism disguised as charity: Each dead Tigua would be cash in the lobbyists pocket.

The Tiguas declined the offer. It felt uncomfortable, a Tigua official told the Senate committee last November.

A few months later Abramoff was pitching a similar concept, this time aimed at black churches, to the reptilian Ralph Reed. It didn't go anywhere, but apparently Reed was interested: Yeah, a former associate of Reeds says, it sounds like Jack approached Reed about mortgaging old black people.

Fine. Reed's a dick. But the Tigua story was originally reported two years ago, and I still don't get it. It doesn't appear to involve a crooked insurance company, but this scam wouldn't work with an honest one, would it? I'm not the insurance industry's biggest fan, but I have confidence that their actuaries are smart enough to price policies so they make a profit on them, not a loss.

What am I missing?

UPDATE: Apparently the answer is that this is a tax arbitrage scheme. In comments, Paul explains:

It's the tax writeoff that makes dead-peasant policies profitable. There would have been a deduction when the money went out to premiums, and then the "Academy" would have been tax-exempt when it got the money, as long as it spent/laundered it appropriately. So you essentially end up making a profit in the amount of the tax saved minus the insurance-company cut.

A more detailed explanation is here.

UPDATE 2: Oh, and I apologize for my coarse language in this post. Describing Ralph Reed as "reptilian" was indeed unfair to reptiles.

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HOW SOON CAN IRAN HAVE A NUCLEAR BOMB?....David Albright estimates that if Iran is serious about building a nuclear weapon, it could maybe, possibly have one in three years:

If Iran had started to build a clandestine plant with 1,500-1,800 centrifuges in early 2006, it could assemble enough additional usable machines in about 15-18 months, or by about mid-2007....It would also need to install control and emergency equipment, feed and withdrawal systems, and other peripheral equipment. It would then need to integrate all of these systems, test them, and commission the plant....Final completion of a clandestine plant would be highly unlikely before the end of 2007.

Given another year to make enough HEU for a nuclear weapon, and a few more months to convert the uranium into weapon components, Iran could have its first nuclear weapon in 2009. By this time, Iran could have had sufficient time to prepare the other components of a nuclear weapon, although the weapon may not be small enough to be deliverable by a ballistic missile.

This result reflects a worst-case assessment for arms control. Iran can be expected to take longer, as it is likely to encounter technical difficulties that would delay bringing a centrifuge plant into operation.

His conclusion is that we still have time to stop Iran from going nuclear, but not that much time:

Looking at a timeline of at least three years before Iran could have a nuclear weapons capability means that there is still time to pursue aggressive diplomatic options and time for measures such as sanctions to have an effect, if they become necessary.

....Although these estimates include significant uncertainties, they reinforce the view that Iran must foreswear any deployed enrichment capability and accept adequate inspections. Otherwise, we risk a seismic shift in the balance of power in the region.

Just thought you'd like to know.

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LARRY SUMMERS REVISITED YET AGAIN....Are men innately better at top-level math and science than women? Who better to write on the subject than a top-level female scientist (Barbara Barres) who is now a top-level male scientist (Ben Barres)? It'll cost you $18 to read Ben's essay in the current issue of Nature, but the Wall Street Journal summarizes it for us for free:

The top science and math student in her New Jersey high school, she was advised by her guidance counselor to go to a local college rather than apply to MIT. She applied anyway and was admitted.

As an MIT undergraduate, Barbara was one of the only women in a large math class, and the only student to solve a particularly tough problem. The professor "told me my boyfriend must have solved it for me," recalls Prof. Barres, 51 years old, in an interview. "If boys were raised to feel that they can't be good at mathematics, there would be very few who were."

....There is little evidence that lack of testosterone or anything unique to male biology is the main factor keeping women from the top ranks of science and math, says Prof. Barres, a view that is widely held among scientists who study the issue. Although more men than women in the U.S. score in the stratosphere on math tests, there is no such difference in Japan, and in Iceland the situation is flipped, with more women than men scoring at the very top.

And here's your quote of the day: "People who do not know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect," Barres says. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."

And another one from Joan Roughgarden, who until 1998 was Jonathan Roughgarden: "Jonathan Roughgarden's colleagues and rivals took his intelligence for granted, Joan says. But Joan has had 'to establish competence to an extent that men never have to. They're assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.'"

And yet another from Gregory Petsko: "Almost without exception, the talented women I have known have believed they had less ability than they actually had. And almost without exception, the talented men I have known believed they had more."

Take your pick.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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COULD IT BE TRUE?....Have Muslim jihadists penetrated the CIA? Of course not. What are you, a conspiracy nut?

No, the real problem is that the CIA is a wholly owned subsidiary of al-Qaeda. That's the reason the Bush administration refuses to disclose all the WMD it's found in Iraq. Spencer Ackerman reports:

Welcome to the new smear. Previous GOP attacks on the intelligence community have merely alleged that Langley is full of political fifth columnists. Now Hoekstra and Santorum are implying that the CIA contains actual fifth columnists.

....For Republicans, locked into support of an unpopular war, convincing their constituencies that American troops need to die for an elusive Iraqi democracy is an increasingly tough sell. The task would be somewhat easier if the Bush administration's pre-war claims about Saddam's WMD were true....So the GOP Congress, and the ranks of the conservative faithful, has become more Catholic than the Pope, resolving that if the Bush administration won't embrace the WMD claims, someone else must rise to the challenge.

I'm glad somebody is out there protecting our precious bodily fluids.

Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (135)

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July 12, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

NEVER?....Lois Romano has this to say about Hillary Clinton:

Never has a politician stepped onto a presidential stage before an audience of voters who already have so many strong and personal opinions about her, or amid arguments that revolve around the intangibles of personality and the ways people react to it.

Really? How about this guy?

Yes, I plead guilty to low-grade pedantry. But still. There's no question that Hillary has some serious competition in this category.

Kevin Drum 11:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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WHAT NOT TO DO IN IRAQ....One of the reasons I favor a prudent withdrawal from Iraq is that no one has proposed a credible plan that would allow American troops to regain control of the low-level civil war currently being waged there. But there's another reason as well, one that I've been reluctant to mention in the past: namely that a full-blown civil war isn't actually the worst thing that could happen as things continue to spiral downward in Iraq. In my Foreign Affairs piece, I finally decided to bring this up:

The worst that could happen is a full-blown Iraqi civil war with the U.S. military caught in the middle. At that point, our options would be to either take sides and become a tacit party to a near genocide, or stand by helplessly while Iraqis slaughter each other in our presence. That would be devastating not just for Iraq and the Middle East but for America's prestige and its future freedom of action as well.

But which would be more likely if civil war breaks out, taking sides or just standing by? Riverbend gives us a clue in her description of the sectarian massacre that unfolded last Sunday in a Baghdad neighborhood:

The horrific thing about the killings is that the area had been cut off for nearly two weeks by Ministry of Interior security forces and Americans. Last week, a car bomb was set off in front of a 'Sunni' mosque people in the area visit. The night before the massacre, a car bomb exploded in front of a Shia husseiniya in the same area. The next day was full of screaming and shooting and death for the people in the area. No one is quite sure why the Americans and the Ministry of Interior didn't respond immediately. They just sat by, on the outskirts of the area, and let the massacre happen.

Actually, the reason for the nonresponse is probably pretty obvious: the Shia-controlled Interior Ministry had no interest in stopping the massacre and the U.S. military wasn't capable of stopping it. They "sat by" because there was nothing they could do to prevent the fighting and no one wanted to be caught in the middle of a full-blown (though neighborhood-sized) civil war when it finally broke out.

Despite everything, I'd be in favor of staying in Iraq if anyone could provide a plan for success that seemed even minimally credible. But no one has. That leaves only one sensible option.

Kevin Drum 5:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (173)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT TO DO IN IRAQ....Foreign Affairs magazine published a piece by Stephen Biddle a few months ago called "Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon," in which he argued that comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam are fatally flawed. Iraq is a communal civil war, not a nationalist war, he says, and counterinsurgency and "Iraqization" won't work.

Biddle's piece in turn spawned a roundtable of responses in the current issue of the magazine, and this in turn spawned a set of responses to the responses from Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, Marc Lynch, and me. You can find them here.

Hitchens aside since he appears not to have even read the roundtable pieces and instead simply banged out a random column on Iraq the most remarkable thing about the responses is that everyone seems to agree that (a) we're virtually powerless to affect events in Iraq and (b) none of the proposals by the roundtable authors are remotely practical. Despite this, none of my fellow responders support even a phased and prudent withdrawal of U.S. troops. Apparently we are to stay in Iraq forever despite the inability of anyone to produce a plan for victory that inspires even minimal confidence.

More on this later.

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NOVAK SPEAKS....SORT OF....Robert Novak has a column today in which he reveals two of his three sources for his original Valerie Plame column:

I have revealed Rove's name because his attorney has divulged the substance of our conversation, though in a form different from my recollection. I have revealed Harlow's name because he has publicly disclosed his version of our conversation, which also differs from my recollection. My primary source has not come forward to identify himself.

So what is Novak's recollection of those two conversations? If he's going to tell us this much, shouldn't he tell us the rest?

UPDATE: Jeralyn Merritt also points out that Novak's assertion in today's column that he got the name "Valerie Plame" from Joe Wilson's Who's Who entry doesn't match his earlier statement that "They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it." Of course, the Who's Who story never made sense in the first place, did it? Perhaps Novak might like to revise and extend.

Kevin Drum 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (179)

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BLACK HAIR....Erin Aubrey Kaplan writes today about the politics of hair:

The debate about the best choices for "black hair," always charged, is flaring up again. A Louisiana sheriff said last week that anyone on the streets in dreadlocks "can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff's deputy" because a murder suspect answering that description remained at large. In April, Susan L. Taylor, the iconic editorial director of Essence magazine, canceled a campus speech when she discovered the college forbids its students to wear "unusual" hairstyles including braids, which are Taylor's signature look. This was noteworthy because the college was Hampton University, one of the nation's oldest historically black campuses. Then it was discovered that Black Enterprise magazine had a similar ban for student interns.

....What's troubling is that, by being forced to change their hair, black people once again are being forced to shoulder the burden of proof: We're not as fearsome as we look. It's up to us to mitigate our dark skin and ethnic features by framing them with hair that's as neat and unethnic as possible.

The 60s have never left us, have they?

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YET MORE WAR....Hamas's success at instigating a full-blown war with Israel in Gaza has apparently inspired Hezbollah to try and start a full-blown war of its own with Israel in southern Lebanon. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, Hezbollah's cross-border strike and abduction of two Israeli soldiers is playing well with the hometown crowd:

"Look, we're used to it 25 years, 26 years it's been like this," Hassan Qaryani, a 21-year-old butcher from Burj Rahal, said of the airstrikes. The kidnapping, he said, was "like a crown on my head . . . as soon as I heard the news I was overjoyed. It was like Italy winning the World Cup."

In the southern suburbs of Beirut, people handed out candy in the streets and set off fireworks. Fireworks also were set off on the airport road, snarling traffic.

Yasser Arafat, wherever he might be warming his toes at the moment, has much to answer for. How different would the world be if he had accepted Ehud Barak's peace offer six years ago and put his personal reputation behind making it work?

As for Israel, I have no idea what they think their response is going to accomplish. They're retaliating in exactly the way that the most militant members of Hamas and Hezbollah were hoping for, and it's unlikely that there's any exit strategy for them that actually improves their internal security or their strategic position. We've been down this road a dozen times before, after all.

Sigh.

Kevin Drum 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (262)

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LEAKS....Why have there been so many leaks related to American intelligence programs lately? Personal vendettas? Bureaucratic infighting between the CIA and the White House? Concern over possible violations of the law?

Nah. Congressman Pete Hoekstra has another theory:

"More frequently than what we would like, we find out that the intelligence community has been penetrated, not necessarily by al Qaeda, but by other nations or organizations," he said.

"I don't have any evidence...."

The Dr. Strangelove-ification of the congressional Republican caucus continues apace.

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HAMDAN AND THE NSA....Is the NSA's domestic spying program legal? It plainly violates the FISA Act, which requires the government to get warrants before it places wiretaps on "U.S. persons," but the Bush administration has offered up two reasons that it may be legal anyway: First, that the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed shortly after 9/11, overrides FISA. Second, that even if it doesn't, FISA is an unconstitutional infringement of the president's inherent commander-in-chief powers.

But guess what? It turns out that these were exactly the arguments the administration made in the Hamdan case, and the Supreme Court rejected both of them. Jack Balkin explains:

The Court...held that "Neither [the AUMF or the Detainee Treatment Act] expands the President's authority to convene military commissions. . . .[T]here is nothing in the text or legislative history of the AUMF even hinting that Congress intended to expand or alter the authorization set forth in Article 21 of the UCMJ."

....What about the President's inherent powers under Article II as Commander-in-Chief? Don't they override Congressional limitations? No, said the Court in Hamdan in a footnote: "Whether or not the President has independent power, absent congressional authorization, to convene military commissions, he may not disregard limitations that Congress has, in proper exercise of its own war powers, placed on his powers."

In other words, if AUMF doesn't override the Uniform Code of Military Justice, there's no reason to think that it overrides FISA. And if Congress can limit the president's Article II powers when it comes to military tribunals, it can also do so when it comes to domestic surveillance. Marty Lederman follows this up with a pointed question:

What will OLC do when presumably within 45 days the NSA program must be reapproved? A.L. suggests that responsible lawyers, even those who are charged to push the legal envelope, should call a halt to the program. David recommends that Congress should tee up the question to DOJ.

This seems pretty clear cut. But apparently not clear cut enough: On Monday, the Department of Justice wrote a letter to Chuck Schumer saying that it stood by all its old arguments for the NSA program even though Hamdan has rather clearly eviscerated them.

So what happens next? The Supreme Court has spoken and the president has decided to flatly ignore them. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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July 11, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

ROCKY MOUNTAIN FOLLIES....Colorado just passed a stringent immigration bill that denies public assistance to anyone who isn't in Colorado legally. However, it still allows children to get food and healthcare, and some Republicans find that outrageous:

Rep. Debbie Stafford, R-Aurora, said at the caucus that she was upset that the bill exempted children under 18. "We're helping create the next generation of terrorists," she said.

The next generation of terrorists! That's telling it like it is, Debbie. Other Republicans were upset that Republican Governor Bill Owens backed down on his support for a bill that would have required all prospective employees to have a Colorado ID card:

Republican Rep. Al White, the sponsor of House Bill 1018, told his Republican colleagues that Owens was supportive of the bill until business leaders told him that the price of a house might go up by 5 percent because some homebuilders could lose illegal-immigrant labor.

"That tells me that business in Colorado is really not serious about doing away with illegal immigration in this state," White said. "And if that is the case, this whole special session is nothing but bull."

Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, said it bothered her "when businesspeople come and talk to the governor and tell him what needs to be done."...."We know, and names were named here, who came and who gives big bucks to the party. It's my party too, and I came here for us to do a job, and I'm ashamed of us," Hefley said.

That's a shocker, isn't it? A Republican governor caving in to business interests. Who would have seen that coming?

However, there's a serious discrepancy between the news reports on this dustup. According to the Denver Post, White said "this whole special session is nothing but bull." But according to the Rocky Mountain News, he said "this whole special session has been b---s---." Which was it? Inquiring minds want to know.

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THE PHARMACEUTICAL DANCE....Andrew Tobias imagines a parallel universe in which the federal government isn't prohibited from negotiating bulk discounts with pharmaceutical companies:

Im out of my depth here, so you will correct me if this is stupid. But what if Medicaid were allowed to negotiate?

Rather than ultimate brinksmanship where if a deal couldnt be reached on some lifesaving drug the patients would just die the dance could have gone this way:

Hey, this is a great drug! Yes, isnt it? We want to buy 100 million of these pills a year. Great. Theyre $7 each. Ouch! Well, for you, and in quantity like that, maybe $6. But you charge the Canadians $1.40, and your cost of production is only 7 cents. Thats true, but it costs us billions to develop these drugs. We need to make a profit commensurate with our investment and our risk, or else why would we continue to advance the frontiers of medicine. You have a good point. How about we pay double what the Canadians pay?

Triple.

Double.

Triple.

Double.

....I have nothing whatever against the Canadians or the Brits or the Swiss but maybe some of this would lead to their being charged a little more for drugs so that we can be charged a little less more.

If you live in a Republican district, this is a question you should ask your congressman the next time you see him. "Why do you believe that Americans should pay artificially inflated prices for drugs in order to allow Italians and Danes to pay artificially lower prices? As an American congressman, shouldn't you be watching out for Americans?"

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WHAT PART OF "MEDICAL" AND "MALPRACTICE" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?....Ezra Klein's burgeoning pundit empire continues to grow, this time with an article in Slate about medical malpractice:

The Republican answer to runaway health-care spending is to cap jury awards in medical malpractice suits. For the fifth time in four years, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist tried and failed to cap awards at $250,000 during his self-proclaimed "Health Care Week" in May.

....Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also want to save on health care. But rather than capping jury awards, they hope to cut the number of medical malpractice cases by reducing medical errors, as they explain in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. In other words, to the Republicans, suits and payouts are the ill. To the Democrats, the problem is a slew of medical injuries of which the suits are a symptom.

So who's right? Click the link for the exciting answer!

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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KILLING UNIONS....As American manufacturing has declined over the past few decades, so have the old-line labor unions that represent manufacturing workers. That dynamic is pretty obvious.

But there's much more to labor's decline than just that. Successive administrations have systematically tipped the bureaucratic scales against labor unions, making it harder to form new unions, harder to join existing unions, and easier for management to harrass and fire union organizers. Nathan Newman writes today about a good example of how this works:

Today, nurses will rally across the country to protest likely decisions by the National Labor Relations Board that would declare most Registered Nurses (RNs) to be "supervisors" under the law and therefore stripped of any protection under labor law.

....Once upon a time, it was generally understood that a supervisor was someone who had some degree of power to hire and fire those below them, but the in a series of decisions, the courts and NLRB have expanded the meaning of supervisor to mean people who, because of their expertise, direct the actions of other employees in some way.

How far this goes has been disputed, but essentially since Registered Nurses often direct other hospital employees on what routine tasks need to happen for patients, the move is to strip RNs of their labor rights.

And here's the kicker once a group of nominal "supervisors" lose their labor rights and can be threatened with being fired, they are forced to become anti-union shock troops to spy on other employees and undermine unionization by other workers. So not only does this kind of decision threaten unions for RNs, it threatens the labor rights of workers throughout the health care industry.

Everyone remembers Reagan firing the air traffic controllers, but for all its drama that didn't affect private sector unionization at all (and, in the end, didn't affect public sector unionization very much either). Successive NLRB rulings, however, have steadily chipped away at labor rights and helped companies like Wal-Mart remain happily union free. That's good for big corporations who contribute to the Republican Party, but not so good for middle class workers who no longer have anyone to fight for pay raises and better working conditions. The result is the three-decade wage stagnation illustrated in the chart above.

Read the rest of Nathan's post for more details on how this works.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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PLAYING GAMES....Joel Havemann of the LA Times explains what's behind the Bush administration's breathless news that federal revenues are up and the deficit is down:

This will be the third year in a row that the administration put forth relatively gloomy deficit forecasts early on, only to announce months later that things had turned out better than expected. To some skeptics, it's beginning to look like an economic version of the old "expectations" game.

....To divert attention from [a worsening fiscal situation], critics suggest, the administration has borrowed a gambit favored by political candidates, who commonly try to lower expectations about how they will fare to magnify the apparent size of their victory if they win.

In the case of the budget, they say, the administration has begun to low-ball its revenue estimates at the beginning of a budget cycle to set up good news a few months later.

Now see? That wasn't so hard, was it?

Kevin Drum 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (188)

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KAPLAN'S WAR....Has Lawrence Kaplan given up on the war in Iraq? It sure sounds like it based on the following blog post that he wrote on Monday:

Did the Army make a mistake when it banished "counterinsurgency" from the lexicon of military affairs? Absolutely. Does it matter in Iraq? Probably not....Would more U.S. troops alter Iraq's homicidal dynamic? Not really, given that, on the question of sectarian rage, America is now largely beside the point. True, U.S. troops can be and have been a vital buffer between Iraq's warring sects. But they cannot reprogram their coarsened and brittle cultures. Even if America had arrived in Iraq with a detailed post-war plan, twice the number of troops, and all the counterinsurgency expertise in the world, my guess is that we would have found ourselves in exactly the same spot. The Iraqis, after all, still would have had the final say.

Kaplan's post was prompted by an atrocity story that sounds frankly unlikely to me, but that hardly matters. He's been in Iraq plenty of times, after all, and has a strong sense of how things are going on the ground.

At the same time, his Monday post doesn't really gibe with "Letting Go," his cover story in the current issue of the New Republic. In that piece, he seems mostly disgusted with the apparent desire of both President Bush and the Pentagon brass to leave Iraq before the job is done.

So which is it: disgust at pulling out too soon, or acknowledgment that there's nothing we can do to stop Iraq from spiraling into civil war and probably never was? Or, paradoxically, both? I can't tell. Perhaps he'll elucidate further in a followup.

Kevin Drum 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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July 10, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

NORTH KOREA'S BOMBS....White House spokesman Tony Snow offered up an analysis of Bill Clinton's policy toward North Korea today:

I understand what the Clinton administration wanted to do. They wanted to talk reason to the government of Pyongyang, and they engaged in bilateral conversations. And Bill Richardson went with flowers and chocolates...and many other inducements for the "Dear Leader" to try to agree not to develop nuclear weapons, and it failed....We've learned from that mistake.

Indeed. But perhaps some facts are in order here. North Korea first began reprocessing plutonium during the administration of George Bush Sr. and may even have built one or two nuclear bombs during that period. Then, in 1994, they began preparations to remove plutonium fuel rods from their storage site, expel international weapons inspectors, and build more bombs. Clinton threatened the North Koreans with war if they went down this road, and then, after sending Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang for negotiations, signed a deal to keep North Korea's plutonium under international control in return for the delivery of two light water nuclear reactors, shipments of heavy fuel oil, and normalization of relations.

For the next six years that agreement held together and North Korea built no more bombs. North Korea even made some promising overtures about missile development late in Clinton's term, but there was no time to conclude the negotiations and the Bush administration showed no interest in following up on anything that it associated with the Clinton era. Fred Kaplan tells the rest of the story in "Rolling Blunder" from our May 2004 issue:

On Oct. 4, 2002, officials from the U.S. State Department flew to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and confronted Kim Jong-il's foreign ministry with evidence that Kim had acquired centrifuges for processing highly enriched uranium, which could be used for building nuclear weapons. To the Americans' surprise, the North Koreans conceded. It was an unsettling revelation, coming just as the Bush administration was gearing up for a confrontation with Iraq. This new threat wasn't imminent; processing uranium is a tedious task; Kim Jong-il was almost certainly years away from grinding enough of the stuff to make an atomic bomb.

But the North Koreans had another route to nuclear weapons a stash of radioactive fuel rods, taken a decade earlier from its nuclear power plant in Yongbyon. These rods could be processed into plutonium and, from that, into A-bombs not in years but in months. Thanks to an agreement brokered by the Clinton administration, the rods were locked in a storage facility under the monitoring of international weapons-inspectors. Common sense dictated that whatever it did about the centrifuges the Bush administration should do everything possible to keep the fuel rods locked up.

Unfortunately, common sense was in short supply.

Read the rest to get the whole story. And then ask yourself just who it was who really failed here.

Kevin Drum 6:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (149)

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THE IMMIGRATION EQUATION....I'd like to join a legion of other bloggers in recommending "The Immigration Equation," Roger Lowenstein's piece in the New York Times Magazine yesterday about the economics of immigration. In fact, based on his previous pieces in the magazine, I think I'd be safe in recommending practically everything he writes for them sight unseen.

The nickel version of Lowenstein's investigation is that, yes, basic economics suggests that importing millions of unskilled Mexican immigrants ought to reduce the wages of unskilled native-born Americans and make it harder for them to find jobs. And yet, mysteriously, it doesn't seem to. At most, it appears to lower wages for unskilled workers only a tiny amount, and it might not lower them at all.

Why? There are theories, but as near as I can tell nobody really seems to know. Nonetheless, the evidence for a significant effect is pretty thin. If you want to argue against immigration from Mexico, you're probably better off doing it on cultural and assimilationist grounds than in trying to torture the economic data to justify your position.

In any case, Lowenstein does a great job explaining both sides of the argument. If you want to understand what the economic debate is about, it's well worth reading.

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LIBERALS vs. CONSERVATIVES....Today, Scott Winship takes on an ancient question: how does the American electorate break down between liberals and conservatives? After some preliminary throat clearing, here's his answer:

  • 42% say they're conservative and really are conservative.

  • 5% say they're liberal but are actually conservative.

  • 13% are genuinely centrist (or perhaps just confused).

  • 13% say they're conservative but are actually liberal.

  • 27% say they're liberal and really are liberal.

So: if you go by what people say, conservatives outnumber liberals 55% to 32%. If you go by how they act, conservatives outnumber liberals 47% to 40%. Here's a bit more detail on how this breaks down:

Adults are conservative on foreign policy and national security (52 to 48) and values (62 to 38), but liberal on economic/social policy (57 to 43) and fiscal policy (60 to 40). Consistent with the idea that liberal is a stigmatized word, just 56 percent of operational liberals self-identified as liberal, while 30 percent self-identified as conservative. In contrast, 79 percent of operational conservatives said they were conservative.

If you're interested, there's more detail over at Scott's blog.

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MORE SPYING....Over the weekend, the New York Times published a letter written to President Bush last May by Pete Hoekstra, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra says there's yet another secret intelligence program that the White House is hiding from Congress, and he's not happy about it. But check out the reason he's unhappy:

If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the Administration, a violation of law, and, just as importantly, a direct affront to me and the Members this committee.

Am I the only one who thinks that a violation of the law ought to rank a wee bit higher than an affront to Pete Hoekstra?

At this point, it's not clear who leaked the letter to the Times, nor has anyone provided a clue about what this program is that has Hoekstra so exercised. However, Justin Rood takes a guess:

Five days before Hoekstra wrote his now-famous letter, NSA whistleblower Russ Tice James "State of War" Risen's source for his NYT domestic wiretapping story told inside-the-beltway pub Congress Daily he was planning to tell congressional staffers "unlawful activity occurred at the agency under the supervision of Gen. Michael Hayden beyond what has been publicly reported, while hinting that it might have involved the illegal use of space-based satellites and systems to spy on U.S. citizens."

Space-based satellites! Cool! Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Nope, it's not Tice.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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July 9, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

ITALY'S PRESS....Laura Rozen on what a truly aggressive press can accomplish:

It is staggering to see what a press that doesn't pull punches coupled with an independent Milan prosecutor have managed to unearth in Italy a full fledged politicized domestic intelligence operation complete with a Roman batcave apartment of archived illegally tapped phone calls and disinformation dossiers, paid spies, and spying on journalists directed against Sismi's and Berlusconi's perceived domestic political enemies.

And there too they had a do-nothing parliamentary oversight committee and timid and intimidated politicians, endless invocations of "state secrecy" and national security, and a public that seemed capable of being manipulated, terrorized, and spun into apathy and resignation. But it's all coming unraveled, finally.

In other words, there's hope for us yet.

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MORE FEDERER....Hey, how about that Roger Federer, eh? Pretty good tennis player, isn't he? Anyone want to take bets on who wins the U.S. Open this year?

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MORE LIEBERMAN BLOGGING!....Jon Chait dives into the Lieberman/Lamont scrum again and accuses Lamont's supporters of what? An ideological litmus test?

[Markos] Moulitsas and many of his allies insist that they just want Democrats to win. But in fact, they believe that any deviation from the party line except for a few circumscribed instances, such as Democrats running for office in red states is an unforgivable crime. They have consigned large chunks of the center-left to enemy status. It is an odd way to go about building a majority.

This strikes me as unsupportable on two counts. First, what exactly is the "party line" that the Kossacks are trying to enforce? I've never been able to discern one, and the fact that (a) Chait doesn't explain what he's talking about and (b) uses a deliberately vague phrase like "party line" makes me suspect he can't really back this up.

Second, why exactly would this be odd in any case? Last I heard, Grover Norquist had built an entire career on insisting that every last Republican politician kiss his pinkie ring and pledge never to vote for a tax increase. And the Republican Party seems to have done pretty well as a result. Having an activist base challenge incumbents viewed as too moderate is hardly unheard of in American politics, is it?

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July 8, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

ADVENTURES IN FEMINISM....Over at The Corner, John Podhoretz says that today's Maureen Dowd column is the "worst op-ed column ever written." Why? He's apparently unhappy that Dowd decided to take advantage of the summer doldrums by exploring the feminist-inspired question of how married couples decide what name to take. But even though I'm not a Dowd fan, I didn't think the column was bad at all. And I even learned something. Did you know that Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's name is actually an invented combination of Villar (his birth name) and Raigosa (his wife's name)? How about that?

In any case, it's ironic that Podhoretz should nominate Dowd's column since, in fact, a few hours earlier his colleague Kathryn Jean Lopez had inadvertantly linked (approvingly, of course) to the real winner of this week's worst op-ed award. In this column, Alicia Colon writes about grandmaster Susan Polgar's "demolishment of gender barriers" in the chess world over the past 25 years. It's a worthy subject, to be sure. But her framing for the column and you're just going to have to click the link if you don't believe me about this is blistering outrage over the fact that Polgar is nowhere to be found on the website of the National Organization for Women. "Alas," she says, "Ms. Polgar's achievements are in the male dominated world of chess that great game of cerebral excellence and strategy not politically correct issues."

And that's the difference between me and the agitprop pros: If I were writing a column about Susan Polgar, it would never occur to me that I could invent an anti-NOW angle by searching their website to see if they had ever mentioned her. Obviously I have much to learn.

Kevin Drum 11:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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BOYS AND THEIR TOYS....The New York Times tackles everyone's favorite new social trend today, the "boy crisis." Why is it that girls are doing way better in college than they did 30 years ago while boys are treading water? By cherry picking a few paragraphs from the story, I think I have the answer:

[Jen] Smyers, also at American, said she recently ended a relationship with another student, in part out of frustration over his playing video games four hours a day...."That's my litmus test now: I won't date anyone who plays video games. It means they're choosing to do something that wastes their time and sucks the life out of them."

....In the Dickinson cafeteria on a spring afternoon, the byplay between two men and two women could provide a text on gender differences. The men...talked about playing "Madden," a football video game, six hours a day, about how they did not spend much time on homework.

....Some professors and administrators have begun to notice a similar withdrawal among men who arrive on campus with deficient social skills. Each year, there are several who mostly stay in their rooms, talk to no one, play video games into the wee hours and miss classes until they withdraw or flunk out.

This spring, Rebecca Hammell, dean of freshman and sophomores, counseled one such young man to withdraw. "He was in academic trouble from the start," Ms. Hammell said. "He was playing games till 3, 4, 5 in the morning, in an almost compulsive way."

Contra Steven Johnson, is it possible that everything bad really is bad for you?

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LIBERTARIAN NEWS....It doesn't rise to the level of R. W. Bradford's masterful reporting from the 2004 Libertarian Party convention, but Brian Doherty gives us the low-down on the LP's 2006 convention today in natch Reason magazine. Here's my favorite line:

Most party-watchers agree that the Great Portland Plank Massacre of 2006 was the result of a concerted effort by the Libertarian Reform Caucus (LRC), led by former anarcho-Rothbardian turned "holistic politician" Carl Milsted.

How can you not love someone who's described as a "former anarcho-Rothbardian turned holistic politician"?

Long story short, it turns out that the old LP platform included not just the stuff you'd expect (abolish Social Security, abolish the Postal Service, abolish Medicare), but also such things as an end to paper money and an end to all taxation. Oddly, some libertarians felt that these planks in their platform were unrealistic and doomed the party to irrelevancy. I don't quite understand why anyone would feel this way, but apparently Milsted successfully orchestrated a coup against the platform and got it replaced by a more moderate and streamlined document.

Sadly, Doherty believes that even with this new, more practical manifesto, it's "doubtful" that the LP can break the 50% barrier in American politics. That seems like a mighty defeatist attitude, doesn't it?

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July 7, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

ROGER FEDERER HERO WORSHIP THREAD....I know that the 99% of you who aren't tennis fans don't care about this, but one more time: how about that Roger Federer? Is he the best tennis player of all time or what? A decade from now, I won't be surprised if that's not even an interesting argument anymore.

But you gotta give Rafael Nadal some credit too. My initial thought was that if Federer can play him close on clay, as he did at the French Open, he's going to kick his butt without working up a sweat on grass. And I guess that's my finishing thought, too. Still Nadal has played remarkably well for a clay-court baseliner. I really didn't think anyone would even challenge Federer at Wimbledon this year, but Nadal probably will. He might even be worth placing a bet on if the odds were promising.

Win or lose, though, thank God for Roger Federer. Tennis has become so one-dimensional lately that I hardly even bother watching it anymore. Federer is just about the only player left who can remind me of how good the game used to be. And who knows? Maybe the rest of the decade will feature an epic Federer-Nadal rivalry that will go down in the record books. We can hope.

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TRAVELING ON THEIR STOMACHS....Julian Barnes reports from Iraq about "Country Captain Chicken," a favorite recipe of George Patton's. Several years ago, some long-lost general suggested that it be made into a Meal Ready-to-Eat in his honor:

So MRE-makers cooked up a prototype of the dish and tested it with soldiers. The Joes liked it. At first. "Our war-fighters gave it a thumbs up; it scored very high," Gerald Darsch, the Defense Department's director of combat feeding, told me. "But, within several years, it began to rate on the low end."

What happened? Country Captain Chicken got a reputation...."Country Captain Chicken," a young specialist told me, "will make you gay."

....For the record, the Army says the soldiers of the 101st were mistaken. "I don't think the currants we put in Country Captain Chicken have any metabolic effect that would change your preference, sexually," Darsch claims.

That's good to know.

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LOOKING GLASS ECONOMICS....The Federal Reserve, we are told, is likely to be disturbed over the fact that average hourly wages are down this year:

Of concern to those watching the report for signs of inflation, the average hourly wages rose 0.5 percent to $16.70. That was more than the 0.3 percent increase forecast by economists.

....The wage gain also represents a 3.9 percent year-over-year rise, the biggest gain in that measure since June 2001. That could be seen as being inflationary, and could prompt the Federal Reserve to keep raising interest rates in an effort to cool the economy and keep prices in check.

Sorry, did I say down? Yes: inflation over the past 12 months has clocked in at about 4.1%, so a 3.9% rise in nominal wages is a decrease in real wages. This is the "wage spike" the Fed is supposed to be concerned about.

Riddle me this: if the Fed tries to put the brakes on wages every time they creep up from negative to zero, what will hourly wages look like over the long term?

Answer: consistently down. Which is exactly what they've looked like over the past several decades.

The overall economy is doing fine. Growth is strong, productivity is strong, corporate profits are strong, CEO compensation is stratospheric. There's plenty of new wealth being created. The problem is that financial markets and the Federal Reserve are bound and determined to make sure that none of this new wealth makes its way into the hands of the middle class. That's why, in our looking-glass world, a real wage decline of -0.2% is described as an increase.

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DOWNING STREET FOLLOWUP....So James Fallows did ask Richard Dearlove about his famous opinion regarding the Bush administration's rush to war ("the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy") and apparently Dearlove laughed it off:

I am less than two years out of government, and I have my pension, he said, making a joke of it but then added that even after two years he would probably not feel free to speak further on this point. Check out the archives in Pembroke College, Cambridge in a hundred years! he said. He recently became master of that college. He did offer this one explanation, which he said he had tried without success to get noted in the U.S. press: The version of the memo that is most often quoted was not the final version, he said. I made some important changes although he would not say what these pentimenti might have been.

Hmmm. If he won't say what the changes were in the final draft, I guess I'm not surprised he hasn't been able to get the American press to pay much attention to it. But there was also this:

And the point he stressed time and again, even in a bonus comment after the official program session had ended the Western world, notably the United States, was doomed unless it reclaimed the moral high ground. By the end of the Cold War, he said, there was no dispute world wide about which side held the moral high ground. As a professional spy master, he said that reality made it so much easier for him to recruit operatives they would volunteer to come to him, because they believed in the cause. Therefore, as a matter of pure strategic necessity, the United States needed to behave according to its best traditions, not the exigencies of an open-ended wartime emergency. (Im paraphrasing a little, but not taking too many liberties.)

When American Democrats say things like this as some of them occasionally screw up the courage to do they are dismissed as pathetic one-worlders. The words are somehow more plausible coming from a man who would have been James Bonds boss.

Dearlove's analysis is so obviously compelling that it's remarkable no Democrat has been able to make this point effectively. Especially since the presidency of the United States might well be the prize for the first person to do so.

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LIEBERMAN BLOGGING....OK, OK, you want Lieberman blogging? Let's do some Lieberman blogging. For my money, the best analysis of the whole Lieberman/Lamont phenomenon comes from Publius, who says the key factor in Lamont's success has been "Liebermans inexplicable political incompetence." It started in 2003, continued in 2004, and then jumped the shark this year:

Fast forward to the end of the 2005. After a year of apologizing for torture, voting for Gonzales, playing footsy-cake with Bush on Social Security, and validating bad Iraq policies, Lieberman surely realized that a primary challenge was looming. Given his immense name recognition and long-standing (and generally solid) record, all he had to do was to give a few high-profile critiques of Bush or the war effort and I think it would have deflated the balloon. But instead, Lieberman wrote his acid-induced Strawberry Fields Forever op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, citing cell phone penetration to defend Bushs Iraq policies. On top of that, he made perhaps his most ridiculous statement ever about how we (WE!) shouldnt undermine our commander-in-chief's credibility in wartime. That one still burns.

As Publius says, all this stuff adds up to someone who has "simply lost his political antennae and his taste for political combat." And it's not a matter of refusing to compromise his principles, either. He could have continued supporting the same policies he had always supported and still not have provoked the Lamont backlash if he'd just handled himself a little better. It's really been a peculiar performance from such an experienced pol.

One thing, though. Publius thinks it's obvious that Lieberman has been sucking up to George Bush because he was hoping to be nominated for Secretary of Defense. Does anyone else agree? I just don't see it. After all, (a) being a sitting senator is a pretty sweet gig, (b) there's only a couple of years left in Bush's term, which is hardly enough time to have any serious impact, (c) running the Pentagon is a lose-lose proposition at the moment, and (d) it would completely destroy his standing in the Democratic Party. Lieberman's judgment may not be what it used to be, but even he couldn't have been seriously thinking this was a brass ring to be fought for, could he?

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July 6, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

TICK TICK TICK....I just realized today that the Connecticut primary isn't until August 8. That means we're in for another full month of 24/7 screeching in the liberal blogosphere about the myriad personal deficiencies of Joe Lieberman, Ned Lamont, and every last one of their friends and supporters.

Just shoot me. Can't President Bush nuke some small third-world country that he's annoyed at so we have something else to talk about? Please?

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CHUNKY EMAIL....I have a techno-geek question for y'all. My mother's ISP is Time Warner, and apparently they have a 1MB limit on the size of email their customers are allowed to send. So when Mom sends me something too big, I get it in chunks of 1MB each in separate email messages.

Here's the question: what's the point of this? Time Warner is using the same amount of bandwidth to do this, and they're delivering something that's useless to me since I can't put the chunks back together. Does anyone know why they do this?

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THE ONE PERCENT DOCTRINE....I've been remiss in not blogging about Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. I don't want to post a full-blown review of the book, but I do want to point out a couple of things that I think have been underappreciated in the other reviews I've read

First, and most prominently, the book has a very powerful narrative arc. A week ago I suggested that Suskind had painted a "fairly sympathetic portrait" of Bush and Cheney, but that was after I'd read only half the book. The real story is more complex and more interesting.

In the first four chapters of OPD Suskind really does offer up a fairly sympathetic portrait of the two men. Here's the situation right after 9/11: Al-Qaeda terrorists have just attacked the country; further attacks seem highly likely; our intelligence network is scrambling and nearly blind; we have good reason to believe that Osama bin Laden might be negotiating with Pakistani radicals to obtain a nuclear weapon; and credible reports suggest that al-Qaeda might also be on the road to manufacturing weaponized anthrax.

What's needed at that point is firm action, and Suskind suggests that Bush and Cheney did a pretty good job of cracking heads during those scary first months especially so considering that those months were actually even scarier than most of us knew at the time.

But then the portrait starts to change. A year after 9/11, Bush and Cheney haven't adjusted their approach even though they know a lot more about the real threat than they did in 2001. Bush is still governing by instinct, Cheney is off in a world of his own, programs put in place during the initial emergency are continuing unabated, and political considerations often vicious ones are paramount in almost every area. Bush and Cheney are simply unable to adjust to a "long, hard slog," and the war on terror is treading water because there's no genuine, informed leadership from the White House.

This arc is what makes reading the book worthwhile. It's not a hit job on Bush and Cheney. It's a portrait of two men who, initially, react understandably and even honorably to a horrible event, but then find themselves at sea when it comes to fighting a longer, more subtle war.

The second point has to do with the "One Percent Doctrine" itself, the meaning of which is a little different than it seems at first glance. It originates with Dick Cheney, who explained early on that if a terrorist event had even a one percent chance of happening, "we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response." This is obviously a justification for taking a hawkish approach to terrorism, but Suskind says there's much more to it than that. After all, the Bush administration has obviously not reacted to every one-percent threat as if it were a certainty.

More than a broad rationalization of mere hawkishness, the One Percent Doctrine is actually a justification for ignoring unwanted analysis. After all, nearly anything has a one percent chance of happening, and if that's the threshold for action, it means we can take action anytime we want. Under the OPD, there is literally no reason to waste time with analysis or policy discussions.

This, of course, is where Suskind ties in this book with his earlier one, The Price of Loyalty. The single most defining characteristic of George Bush's personality is his belief in his own instinct and his corresponding disdain for serious policy analysis. For Bush, the One Percent Doctrine is tailor made. He is contemptuous of policy discussions, and the OPD is the perfect excuse to ignore them.

There's much more to the book, of course, and it's well worth reading, especially if you want to hear the story of the past five years from the point of view of George Tenet and other senior managers of the CIA, who have borne the brunt of an often brutal and personal bureaucratic battle to ensure that someone anyone other than George Bush takes the blame when things go wrong.

But bewarned: if you take the threat of Islamic jihadism seriously, Suskind will not make you feel any safer. Quite the contrary. As Richard Dearlove said yesterday, "just about everything in the American approach to the war on Islamic terrorism had been ill-conceived." Suskind gives you a pretty good idea of why.

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THE END OF DEMOCRACY PROMOTION....Marc Lynch, after running down the evidence that the Bush administration has "effectively given up on democracy promotion" in the Arab world, makes the following observation:

On al-Arabiya last week, Hisham Milhem led a discussion on "Bush and democracy in the Arab world."....I was most struck by a remark by Amr Hamzawy. He pointed that the fact that most of the Arab media and political class were now discussing the "retreat" of American commitment to democracy demonstrates that at least at one point they were prepared to entertain the thought that there had been some credibility to that campaign. No longer, Hamzawy argued America's turn away from democracy and reform had badly hurt its image and its credibility with this Arab political class....This seemed to be a well-received notion.

But that's really just a single piece of a broader, and even more remarkable turn of events: the Bush administration literally seems to have no foreign policy at all anymore. They have no serious plan for Iraq, no plan for Iran, no plan for North Korea, no plan for democracy promotion, no plan for anything. With the neocons on the outs, Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, and Dick Cheney continuing to drift into an alternate universe at the OVP, the Bush administration seems completely at sea. There's virtually no ideological coherency to their foreign policy that I can discern, and no credible followup on what little coherency is left.

As near as I can tell, George Bush has learned that "There's evil in the world and we're going to stand up to it" isn't really adequate as a foreign policy for a superpower but is unable to figure out anything better to replace it with. So he spins his wheels, waiting for 2009. Unfortunately, the rest of us are left spinning with him.

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MALIKI'S PLAN....The recent peace plan proposed by Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, includes, among other things, an end to U.S. operations against insurgent strongholds, a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and a review of de-Baathification. OxBlog's newest addition, Taylor Owen, comments:

Does this not run almost completely contrary to US policy over the past 2 years? Are they not suggesting a reversal of the majority of US policy and tactics? Are they not making the distinction between different types of terrorists, a distinction this administration is absolutist against? Imagine if a Democratic Senator were to propose such a deal.

Even more poignant is the call for a timeline for withdrawal. This coming from all involved in the negotiations, including Khalilzad, the US Ambassador.

Taylor wonders if this explains why Maliki's proposal has gotten so little attention in the American press. I don't know if it does or not, but I agree that the lack of coverage has been fairly remarkable. There were a few brief stories about Maliki's plan on the day it was released, but it's been practically invisible since then. Why is that?

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CLONING, CLONING, CLONED....As near as I can tell, the aim of this op-ed by Robert George and Eric Cohen is to demagogue embryonic stem cell research by using the word "clone" as many times as possible in a single column. I count a total of 21 uses, for a remarkable "Boys From Brazil" quotient of 1.5 mentions per paragraph. Good work, guys.

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July 5, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE CONSERVATIVE ALLIANCE....Roy Edroso catches NRO's Mark Bauerlein in a seemingly odd statement. After complaining that virtually the whole world is still liberal (you know the drill: the media, higher education, arty types, etc.), he adds this:

There are other, smaller realms to list (hip-hop, malls, etc.). But [Rick] Perlstein would probably claim that, for instance, malls are a free-market zone entirely in accord with conservative economic freedoms, not recognizing a difference between, on one hand, cultural values and effects, and, on the other, economic behaviors.

"Malls?" asks Roy. "Maybe he's upset by the mannequins at Victoria's Secret."

Roy is probably closer than he thinks. One of the strongest tensions at the core of the current conservative alliance (free market fat cats + religious reactionaries = electoral victory!) is the fact that smart conservatives, anyway, are well aware that capitalism is by a long way the most powerful force ever invented for social change. After all, successful capitalism requires lots of educated workers, provides those workers with lots of money, and thrives on the notion that corporations should be allowed to produce anything they want to satisfy the needs of consumers.

In other words, give the customer what he wants. But guess what rich, educated customers turn out to want? Something different. And something different is precisely what social conservatives don't want.

It's amazing, really, that the alliance has lasted as long as it has. The key to its demise ought to be the eventual rise of a demagogue who whips up social conservatives into a massive and righteous revolt against unrestrained capitalism, which has brought us an onslaught of porn, birth control pills, working mothers, the breakdown of the nuclear family, etc. etc. So far, though, the Republican Party apparatus has kept them under control. But for how much longer?

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SPELLING BEE....Here's a spelling quiz. Which of the following names is most frequently misspelled by bloggers?

  1. Rick Perlstein (aka Pearlstein)

  2. Nick Kristof (aka Kristoff)

  3. Dianne Feinstein (aka Diane)

Answer: a quick search using Google Blog says the answer is Dianne Feinstein, whose name is misspelled 19% of the time. Kristof comes in second at 15% and Perlstein actually does pretty well, clocking in at only 3%.

However, in the nonpolitical realm (or semi-political, perhaps), I've found at least one person whose name is spelled incorrectly a whopping 63% of the time. Can you guess who? And can anyone come up with someone whose name is misspelled even more frequently?

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"C" SPEAKS....James Fallows, reporting from the Aspen Institute's "Ideas Festival," reports that Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of Britain's MI6, said today that he thought "just about everything in the American approach to the war on Islamic terrorism had been ill-conceived." Fallows wants to hear more:

Terrorism is an extreme form of political communication, he said. You want to be sure that, in your response, you dont end up amplifying the messages that terrorists are trying to convey. This understanding, he said, explained why his country approaches counter-terrorism in so different a way from Americas.

Thats what I wanted to hear more about in what ways, exactly, he thinks the United States might have amplified the Al Qaeda message, and what a different approach would look like.

OK, fine. I guess I want to hear more about that too. But what I'd really like to hear about is what exactly Dearlove meant when he told Tony Blair that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" after returning from a visit to the U.S. in the summer of 2002. And as long as we're at it, I'd also be interested in knowing when he concluded that "hard evidence of WMD in Iraq would never be found." After the war, presumably, but how long after?

But I suppose it would be rude to ask pointed questions like that at a fancy conference, wouldn't it?

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SO HOW ARE WE DOING IN THE WAR ON TERROR?....Foreign Policy magazine has a survey of 116 foreign policy heavyweights in this month's issue and the results are pretty easy to summarize: they think America's efforts in the war on terror are failing on practically every measure. The chart on the right shows the consensus.

The survey respondents are listed here. They trend slightly liberal, but the survey results were weighted to give equal weight to self-described liberals and conservatives. Here's FP's summary:

Despite todays highly politicized national security environment, the index results show striking consensus across political party lines. A bipartisan majority (84 percent) of the indexs experts say the United States is not winning the war on terror. Eighty-six percent of the indexs experts see a world today that is growing more dangerous for Americans. Overall, they agree that the U.S. government is falling short in its homeland security efforts. More than 8 in 10 expect an attack on the scale of 9/11 within a decade.

These dark conclusions appear to stem from the experts belief that the U.S. national security apparatus is in serious disrepair. Foreign-policy experts have never been in so much agreement about an administrations performance abroad, says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and an index participant. The reason is that its clear to nearly all that Bush and his team have had a totally unrealistic view of what they can accomplish with military force and threats of force.

Via Eric Martin.

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RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE....The reaction among liberals to Barack Obama's recent speech about religion in public life (text here) has largely been a complaint that he's attacking a straw man. Actual Democratic politicians governors, senators, members of congress never disparage religion, after all. In fact, they're never anything but respectful toward it. So what is Obama complaining about?

I was curious about this, so I read his remarks. And it turns out that in a speech of 4,600 words mainly about his own religious journey, the liberal message inherent in the Bible, and the importance of the separation of church and state he really only discussed liberal attitudes toward religion in four places. Here they are:

At best, we [Democrats] may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that regardless of our personal beliefs constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.

....More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms.

....But what I am suggesting is this secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.

....A sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation context matters.

Obama talks about "some liberals" who caricature religious Americans and "some progressives" who are unhappy with any hint of religion in the public square, and then suggests that not every mention of religion by public officials is worth fighting.

It's obviously possible to disagree with Obama. Frankly, I'd have to discuss a few specific examples with him to see if I think he's on the right page. But the plain fact is that he was careful in his speech and also plainly correct: "some" liberals are uncomfortable with any mention of religion in the public square, and he thinks this is too bad. He also recognizes that just saying so isn't enough:

So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will? It's going to take more work, a lot more work than we've done so far. The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed. And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.

Yep. And it's especially worth noting that this is an area where public opinion reigns even more supreme than usual. The ACLU is a free actor, after all, and so is Jerry Falwell. The actions of the former reflect on liberals even if not all liberals agree with every court case they bring, and the actions of the latter reflect on conservatives even if not all conservatives agree with him. Only persuasion has any chance of turning down the volume here, which means that for this conversation to have any hope of success, both liberals and conservatives need to feel free to criticize attitudes on their own side without being considered traitors to their own cause.

It's a funny thing. When I post about religion, I usually get two kinds of comments. The first is people telling me that I'm falling into a conservative trap by even entertaining the idea that some liberals are contemptuous toward religion. The second is snarky liberal secularists telling everyone else to take their stupid myths and shove 'em where the sun don't shine. Do you think both sides will show up in this thread as well?

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July 4, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

JULY 4th FIREWORKS BLOGGING....The 4th of July is very big deal in our neighborhood, celebrated with parades and parties and contests all day long, capped off with an annual fireworks display. The fireworks are set off right outside our house, and although the cats don't like it much, the rest of us do. Here's what it looked like this year. Enjoy.


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PATRIOTIC CAT BLOGGING....The treasonous critters here at the Washington Monthly's West Coast headquarters declined to cooperate with today's efforts to memorialize them in patriotic poses, so I gave up. Instead, here are a couple of rare, previously unpublished shots from 2003's Patriotic Felines world tour.

Have a happy 4th! See you tomorrow.

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TRUDY RUBIN ON IRAQ....Jeff Weintraub recommends that I read the Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin, who has recently been in Iraq and has a good feel for what's happening on the ground there. So I did. And after a bit of back and forth about what our military leaders think about drawing down our forces in Iraq, here's what she says about the debate over withdrawal:

Iraqi officials from nearly all factions say they want U.S. troops drawn down within 18 months. Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie wrote in the Washington Post recently that he expected most of the U.S. troops "to return home by the end of 2007."

However, neither Rubaie nor more senior Iraqi leaders want an explicit timeline. Instead, they favor a "road map" for troop reductions, that depends on achieving a set of goals for improving Iraqi security. They want dates, but dates that depend on meeting those targets.

This is not precisely what the Reed-Levin resolution called for, but it's pretty close: make at least a small start on troop drawdowns this year; don't set a specific timetable for further drawdowns; but do insist that the Bush administration submit a redeployment plan by the end of the year that specifies "estimated dates...with the understanding that unexpected contingencies may arise."

It's difficult to understand why anyone would oppose this though every Republican senator but one did. It's little more than an official acknowledgement that we don't intend to stay in Iraq forever, and practically the only concrete thing it asks for is that the Bush administration tell us what its goals are in Iraq and then provide some rough estimates for accomplishing these goals. What's more, if Rubin is right, this is almost exactly what the Iraqi leadership wants.

So that's that: I've read Trudy Rubin and I agree that she sounds pretty sensible. Both she and the Iraqi leadership appear to believe that an open-ended commitment to the occupation of Iraq is a bad idea, and that a vague commitment to drawing down U.S. forces that's something short of a firm timetable is a good idea. On that score, 38 out of 44 Senate Democrats seem to agree. Unfortunately, the Bush administration doesn't.

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July 3, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

POP CULTURE FUN....Tim Cavanaugh has a funny take on AFI's latest "100 Greatest" list, the "100 Most Inspiring Films Of All Time":

Lawrence of Arabia clocks in at 30, a film that opens with its hero's meaningless death, ends with his ambiguous departure from the battlefield, and in between features both an extended segment of homoerotic torture in a Turkish army prison and an Arthur Kennedy performance that really drags down the film's second half. I don't know, maybe pointless death, sexually-charged torture, and ambiguous battlefield departures are what Americans find inspiring these days.

My biggest complaint with the list was the inclusion of Rudy at #54. Here's what I took away from that film: if you have no athletic talent, it doesn't matter how annoying and and persistently stupid you are. You're still not going to be good enough to play Division 1 football. However, you will be annoying and persistently stupid.

Hmmm. I guess it's obvious that I'm not taking my political blogging duties very seriously today, isn't it? That being the case, be sure to check out John Holbo's meditation on feminism and the Legion of Super Heroes. In the interest of fairness, however, keep in mind that the story in question was (a) written by a 17-year-old, (b) in 1968, (c) for a comic book. Beyond that, enjoy.

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50-50 WORLD?....What's up with elections these days? In 2004, George Bush beat John Kerry by 120,000 votes in one state. In 2005, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats won Germany's federal elections by three seats. A few months ago, the Italian left beat Silvio Berlusconi by 0.1% and it took over a week for Berlusconi to concede defeat. Today, we learn that Mexico's elections are so close that we won't learn the results until Wednesday. Preliminary results have the two main candidates within one percentage point of each other.

Have we gone from a 50-50 nation to a 50-50 world? What's going on?

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By: Kevin Drum

LAB RATS....What is it they say about college students? That they're the white lab rats of the social sciences? Eszter Hargittai, noting yet another report based on a study of a small number of college students, complains about this:

There are several fields that base a good chunk of their empirical research on studies of students. This is usually done due to convenience. And perhaps regarding some questions, age and educational level do not matter. But the issue is rarely addressed directly. In many instances it seems problematic to assume that a bunch of 20-year-olds in college are representative of the entire rest of the population. So why write it up that way then?

....This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to certain types of scholarship. And I do mean scholarship. Because it is not just the journalistic reports that make the leap. The academic articles themselves use that kind of language.

To make it even worse, the particular study she highlights is about sexual response in men. What are the odds that any conclusions about sex based on a study of 20-year-olds would be applicable to other age groups as well?

As an aside, my particular pet peeve in this area is slightly different: surveys that purport to show how stupid kids are these days. 50% of high school juniors can't locate Belgium on a map! Fine, but how many 40-year-olds can find Belgium on a map?

But I've complained about this before, haven't I?

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By: Kevin Drum

MIXING IT UP....How many metaphors could a metaphor mix if a metaphor could mix metaphors? Kieran Healy counts.

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July 2, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS....Jonah Goldberg today:

If Democrats want terrorists to fall under the Geneva Convention let them say so. My guess is most won't, if they're smart.

Well, I'm a Democrat, and I'll say it: anyone we capture on a battlefield should be subject to the minimum standards of decency outlined in the Geneva Conventions. That includes terrorists. It's our way of telling the world that we aren't barbarians; that we believe in minimal standards of human decency even if our enemies don't. It's also a necessary though not sufficient requirement for winning this war.

I hope other Democrats are smart enough, decent enough, and dedicated enough to beating terrorism to say so too.

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING....Daniel Gilbert on why we care about some things and not others:

Global warming isn't trying to kill us, and that's a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation's top priority.

Hmmm. Do you think there's any way of convincing President Bush that global warming is actually part of a deliberate program of world conquest started in 1949 by the Red Chinese? It's worth a try....

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July 1, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HARD OF HEARING....Laura Turner comments on the new Coldplay album:

Yes, I know listening to Coldplay is lame. I don't care. I love this sort of empty-calories power pop. Or I would if not for the heinous quality of Chris Martin's lyrics, which on this effort seem to be some sort of passive-aggressive ode to failing grade-8 geometry. I try to ignore them and indulge in the falsetto and driving crunchy guitar and good production and endless hooks. But the procession of physics-for-poets lines like "Youre a part of the human race / All the stars in outer space / Youre a part of a system just really subtracts from the Coldplay listening experience.

Luckily for me, I don't usually have this problem because, thanks to poor hearing, I can almost never make out the lyrics of pop songs in the first place.

As it happens, my hearing is below average in two ways. First, in the usual volume-oriented way, which is why I like the TV volume turned up higher than most people. This doesn't explain the pop lyrics thing, though, since I can always turn up the volume on the radio too.

But there's a second way my hearing is poor: I have a harder time than most people discerning sounds when there's any ambient noise around. Turn on a water faucet in the next room and I can't make out what people are saying on TV. Put a bunch of people in a room talking at normal volume and I can't make out what the person next to me is saying. And song lyrics? Forget it.

I suppose there must be a name for this condition, right? Does anyone know what it is?

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By: Kevin Drum

SEPARATION OF POWERS....Alberto Gonzales comments on the Hamdan decision:

The Supreme Court decision that ruled against the Bush administration's plan to try suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay prison has "hampered our ability" to deal with terrorists, the U.S. attorney general said Saturday.

...."What this decision has done is, it's hampered our ability to move forward with a tool which we had hoped would be available to the president of the United States in dealing with terrorists," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told CNN.

Can somebody please explain to me why the Bush administration takes the consistent position that the involvement of the Congress of the United States is something that ipso facto "hampers" our ability to deal with terrorists? Do they think Congress is unpatriotic? Too weak minded? Untrustworthy? What's the deal?

See Publius for more details on this.

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By: Kevin Drum

ENGLAND v. PORTUGAL....Excellent. A 0-0 tie that will be decided by penalty kicks. This is what makes soccer the greatest game in the world!

UPDATE: OK, I have to admit that was pretty nerve wracking. Good stuff, even though it brings my winning streak to an end. But good for Portugal anyway.

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By: Kevin Drum

IN DEFENSE OF ASTROLOGY....Not really, of course. As you might expect, I think it's kooky stuff. Still, here are two points in its favor:

  1. To the best of my knowledge, the astrological community has never insisted that Saturn transits should be taught in high school science classes.

  2. I once had a friend who was seriously into astrology, and one day I watched her do a reading. Guess what? She was really good! It was pretty obvious that this was because she happened to be a naturally empathetic person who listened well, and the astrology merely acted as a sort of ice breaker and common language. But whatever its purpose, the star charting obviously served a positive role in their conversation.

This is about the nicest thing I'm ever likely to say about astrology, so grab it while you can.

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By: Kevin Drum

JOE AND NED....In a post yesterday, commenter gq wonders when I'm going to comment on the Lieberman/Lamont primary race in Connecticut. How about now?

Generally speaking, I have nothing against Lieberman. Even his pro-war stance is OK. We're a big tent, right? His sucking up to George Bush, however, is really offensive and completely gratuitous. That's strike one.

Plus there's this whole snide business about how "Kos and the liberal netroots have never backed a winning candidate." It's not really true, I know, but it would still be nice to see that canard die a clear and well-deserved death. So that's strike two.

And then there's the really lame ads Lieberman has been running. That's strike three. And the fact that he's as much as said he'd ditch the party and run as an independent if he loses. That's strike four. And his vote for cloture during the debate on the bankruptcy bill. That's strike five.

Remind me again. How many strikes before you're out?

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WORLD CUP MISCELLANY....Oddly enough, both my World Cup picks on Friday came through. On a pretty much random basis, I had picked both Germany and Italy. Needless to say, though, I remain appalled at the whole penalty kick thing for deciding championship games. I say, make 'em play until they drop of exhaustion. Someone will score eventually.

Can I continue my winning streak today? I'll pick England and Brazil. On past history, I suppose England is a stupid choice, but the British sporting press is so mind-bogglingly brutal toward its athletes that I figure they need someone rooting for them.

On the other hand, the British would certainly have a much better shot at World Cup glory if they'd cut the crap and actually play as Great Britain, instead of parceling all their best players out to four separate regional teams. I know, I know, there's history there. But it's still really dumb. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

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