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Tilting at Windmills

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August 31, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

#376 IN THE PARADE OF PEOPLE TRYING TO DRIVE ME INSANE....And today's winner is: David Broder, discussing the vast unfairness of not allowing New Hampshire to single-handedly choose the Democratic nominee for president. Here's my favorite part:

Voters there in both parties and especially among the numerous independents who also vote in the primary take their role seriously. They turn up at town meetings and they ask probing questions. So do the interviewers at local papers and broadcast stations. So do high school students.

New Hampshire voters don't need or particularly want guidance from Iowa, and frequently they ignore the Iowa results. But they are stuck with Iowa. Now, thanks to the Democrats, they may be stuck with Nevada as well, and crowded from behind by South Carolina.

Oh, the humanity! To hear Broder tell it, you'd think that New Hampshire's role in anointing frontrunners had been handed down on a stone tablet to Moses. Sheesh.

POSTSCRIPT: I grew up in California and have voted here since 1976. In my entire life, I haven't once cast a primary vote for president that wasn't completely meaningless. How about writing a column on the unfairness of that?

Kevin Drum 8:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (135)

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By: Kevin Drum

REVENGE OF THE STRAW MEN....Via Steve Benen, the Washington Post's Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei get it right in a front page story today about the desperate fever swamp rhetoric emanating from conservative quarters lately:

Bush suggested last week that Democrats are promising voters to block additional money for continuing the war. Vice President Cheney this week said critics "claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone." And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing passivity toward Nazi Germany before World War II, said that "many have still not learned history's lessons" and "believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased."

Pressed to support these allegations, the White House yesterday could cite no major Democrat who has proposed cutting off funds or suggested that withdrawing from Iraq would persuade terrorists to leave Americans alone. But White House and Republican officials said those are logical interpretations of the most common Democratic position favoring a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Italics mine. This ought to be standard procedure when quoting any of the absurd "some say" or "many believe" lines coming out of the White House. It's about time the straw men started fighting back.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (211)

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By: Kevin Drum

ISLAMOFASCISM....David Weigel quotes Jack Reed on George Bush's newfound infatuation with the ridiculous neologism "Islamofascism":

And again, I think it goes to the point of that their first response is, you know, come up with a catchy slogan, and then they forget to do the hard work of digging into the facts and coming up with a strategy and resources that will counter the actual threats we face.

Preach it, brother. The modern Republican Party has mastered the art of winning elections by beating culture war campaign tropes to death in 30-second ad spots, and they seem to think that you can solve actual real-world problems the same way. Sadly, it isn't true. With any luck, the American public will finally figure that out this year.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (153)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAYING NICE WITH OTHERS....Over at the LA Times, the Matt Welch-inspired Reason-ification of the op-ed page continues apace. Today, Nick Gillespie complains about the taming of Chicago:

Over the last year, the Associated Press recently reported, Chicago snuffed out smoking "in nearly all public places" and pulled the plug on using cellphones while driving. This April, the "Hog Butcher for the World" (Sandburg again) became the first city in the country to ban the sale of foie gras, on grounds that force-feeding geese to make the tasty treat is more cruelty than Al Capone's adopted hometown can bear.

....More recently, the council passed a "living wage" ordinance requiring big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target to pay a minimum of $10 an hour plus benefits by 2010 or face draconian penalties (perhaps a deep-dish plate of a kinder, gentler foie gras, or repeated showings of that old Sears Tower promotional film?).

....In years gone by, people poured into cities to escape the conformity and monotony of life on the farm or in the small town. Now they go there to frown at aberrant behavior and pick up after their dog. In this, alas, Chicago is truly America's third city and sadly, not the last.

At the risk of being deluged with angry email from PETA members, I'll give Nick the foie gras thing. But the rest of this is kind of silly, no? I mean, object to nanny-state regulations if you want, but suggesting that cities cities! have been blissfully regulation free in the past is a little much. For as long as humans have congregated in large numbers, they've understood that large numbers can only live together without killing each other if their behavior is more circumscribed than it was when they were down on the farm with their nearest neighbor a long hog call away. Thus zoning laws, noise laws, parking laws, leash laws, health inspection laws, jaywalking laws, satellite dish laws, and tossing-pails-of-shit-out-your-window laws.

Face it: if you want to be a libertarian, rural Idaho is the place for you. But if you want to live in close proximity to millions of your fellow citizens, be prepared for some restrictions. I'll bet there's even an old Hittite saying for this.

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING....California is on the verge of passing a law that would mandate modest but meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases:

Leaders of the state legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a deal yesterday under which California will mandate a reduction in the state's emissions of gases contributing to global warming to 1990 levels by 2020....California, the world's sixth-largest economy, accounts for only about 2% of the world's annual global-warming emissions. But California leaders made clear their intent is to spur other states, and ultimately the federal government, to follow the state's lead. That has happened with a string of past environmental regulations, notably restrictions on automotive pollution.

....The Bush administration which has rejected the international Kyoto Protocol emissions-reduction treaty reacted tepidly to word of the California push. "The states are free to make their own decisions about their policies," said Kristen Hellmer, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. But she reiterated the administration's philosophical opposition to global-warming caps, saying a cap imposed in one state or country simply causes industry to move to another location. "They're going to still produce greenhouse gas," she said.

As usual, Bush has his head in the sand over this. As he knows very well, we could prevent industries from moving to other states by adopting national standards, something he's dead set against.

Still, this is a good first move, and I'll bet all comers that not only does it not have a negative impact on California's economy, it will have a noticeably positive impact. It will spur R&D in new technologies, it will motivate businesses to become more efficient, and it will make California a better place to live. And as for businesses moving out, I'll bet against that too. Moving heavy industrial plants to new states is a lot less appealing than it sounds, and if it does start to happen I'll bet other states will follow California's lead. After all, what state wants to be the dumping ground for all the poor corporate citizens who are moving out of California because they want to relocate somewhere that doesn't mind them belching tons of pollutants into the air?

But liberals need to get on board with a few things too. California's legislation allows the rulemaking authorities to implement a cap-and-trade system, and this is something we should embrace. It's a system that works well for things like greenhouse gases that disperse widely (i.e., local hotspots aren't an issue), and it allows the business community to adapt to new rules in the least painful and most efficient way possible. And that's a good thing: "more efficient" means we get the biggest bang for our limited bucks; it means less resistance from the business community; and it makes it easier to create a consensus for more stringent rules in the future if we need to. There's no reason to get upset about individual businesses buying their way out of the new regulations as long as we achieve our overall goals. We should take their money and run.

But the main reason this is good news is California's well known role as a bellwether state. If California implements this new law efficently and fairly, other states will follow. And if other states follow, maybe other countries will too. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

Kevin Drum 1:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (133)

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August 30, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GREEN CHEESE....Bruce Moomaw draws my attention to a speech given a few months ago by George Bush's science guy, John Marburger. He's explaining why Bush is so hot and heavy on manned lunar exploration:

The greatest value of the Moon lies neither in science nor in exploration, but in its material....The production of oxygen in particular, the major component (by mass) of chemical rocket fuel, is potentially an important Lunar industry.

....Where does Mars fit into this picture? At the present time, much commentary to the contrary, we do not know how to send humans to Mars and return them safely within a reasonable cost envelope....There is no question, however, that the expense of such a mission would be vastly reduced if the bulk of its fuel and massive components could be obtained from materials, and manufactured, outside Earth orbit. The Moon is a logical place to do this. As to the motivation for a human expedition to Mars, there is an obvious prestige value for a nation that leads the first human to Mars mission. A more pragmatic objective is to establish on Mars the same kind of industrial infrastructure that I described for the Moon. What makes the Moon operation economically viable are the Earth-oriented markets. That is not likely to be the case for a similar operation on Mars unless economically attractive materials are found on Mars itself or among the asteroids. Consequently, a Mars operation complex enough to warrant human oversight will have to be fully subsidized by governments during a long period of robotic exploration beyond Mars orbit.

Let me see if I have this straight. Marburger's best excuse for creating a massive lunar manufacturing base is to produce oxygen for rocket fuel. Despite the peculiar talk later on about "Earth-oriented markets," it's plainly absurd to produce oxygen on the moon for use on earth, so Marburger is proposing instead that it be produced to lower the cost of fuel for a mission to Mars. And what's the point of this Mars mission? Nothing he can think of, since there's clearly no economic benefit and "robotic exploration beyond Mars" doesn't require a manned Mars base.

Question: what happens to people who are hired into the Bush administration? Do they just shrug their shoulders and agree to spout crazy stuff because that's the price of working in the White House? Does Cheney have some kind of diabolical mind ray that actually makes them believe this stuff? Or what?

Kevin Drum 7:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (129)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLACK GOLD....Spencer Ackerman reads Peter Baker's Washington Post story about the upcoming visit of Kazakhstan's president and notes that Baker is oddly reticent about mentioning Kazakhstan's vast oil wealth as a motivating factor for playing nice with them:

Similarly, early in the piece Baker notes that other moderate-to-serious tyrannies receiving Bush's thumbs-up are Azerbaijan and Equitorial Guinea, and he also points out Dick Cheney's recent Caspian Sea excursion. But he does this all without mentioning that what all these nations have in common is possession of or access to quite a lot of a certain black, viscous substance that greases the wheels of the global economy and international relations.

....Look: There's a certain ridiculous tap dance in politics and in the media about talking about oil, as if the simple recognition that oil influences foreign policy is somehow a gauche or extreme statement. That doesn't mean that everything reduces to a question of who has oil and who doesn't. But what good does it serve to strenuously pretend that oil has only a trivial impact on U.S. decision-making?

Spencer is right, and this is one of the reasons that Americans are so clueless about how the rest of the world views us. I can understand a reluctance to be associated with the fever swamps of oil-based conspiracy mongering, but the plain fact is that a great deal of American foreign policy is driven by concerns over the stability of our oil supply. The rest of the world is well aware of this, and our blithe pretense that we're not concerned with such grubby issues it's all about democracy! is one of the reasons so many non-Americans don't believe a word we say on other issues as well. They probably can't figure out if we're in genuine denial about our own motivations or just being mendacious about them, but does it matter?

On our end, of course, most Americans just end up being perplexed. Why do foreigners think we're after everyone's oil? How can they believe such a thing about us? The answer is easy: they believe it because there's a lot of truth to it. But you'd hardly know it if you read nothing but the American press.

Kevin Drum 4:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOSING THE WAR THE RUMSFELDIAN WAY....I guess one way of viewing Don Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion yesterday is that it was nothing more than garden variety election-year political pandering. Iowa farmers want to hear you swear undying fealty to ethanol subsidies and WWII vets want to hear paeans to blood and guts. Usually, they both get what they want.

Alternatively, and more persuasively, it's one of the opening shots in the ongoing Dr. Strangelove-ification of this year's midterms. In the same way that TV shows have to become ever more violent and risque in order to shock audiences who have seen it all before, Republicans must figure that the only way to make the terrorism card pay off yet again is to amp up the wingnuttery for an obviously skeptical and jaded public. And since terrorism is all they've got, that's what they're going to do. What other choice do they have?

However, at the risk of being suckered into responding to something that's obviously meant as little more than crude base pandering, let's take a look at one thing Rumsfeld said. In between the counterculture bashing that brought back memories of William Safire speeches written for Spiro Agnew, Rumsfeld asked this:

With the growing lethality and availability of weapons, can we truly afford to believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased?

Why, no, we can't. And needless to say, no one believes this. Not Democrats, not Republicans, not anybody. Osama and his pals are fanatics, and negotiating with fanatics is pointless.

But Rumsfeld's speech was never meant to be taken seriously. It's just crude agitprop designed to keep the proles from wondering if the Cheney wing of the Republican Party is actually doing anything to make the world a safer place. The question has never been whether we should open talks with al-Qaeda, it's been what we should do to stop them from killing us. Should we fight a war in Iraq that's served primarily as a recruiting bonanza for radical jihadism? Should we refuse to talk to the Middle East's biggest regional power because we think that merely being in the same room with them is a sign of weakness? Should we encourage Israel to fight a fruitless war against Lebanon while simultaneously egging on American hawks who think a bombing campaign against Iran will fix all our problems? Should we spend homeland defense money on dumb projects in loyal red states instead of taking port security seriously?

Let's see. How about no, no, no, and no? But those are questions Rumsfeld would prefer not to address since they put the spotlight on the fact that the Bush administration has accomplished nothing over the past five years except to make a bad problem even worse which is a pretty remarkable record when you consider how bad the problem was to begin with.

But al-Qaeda won't be beaten by fighting a bunch of aimless proxy wars in the general vicinity of the Middle East. It will, eventually, be beaten when the non-terrorist population of the region decides to turn against al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies and deny them the support and shelter they need in order to function. Encouraging that to happen is the biggest foreign policy challenge of the 21st century, and because they've failed so miserably at it, it's the one thing the Bushies most want to avoid talking about.

Which is, of course, precisely why we should talk about it. Loudly and relentlessly. It's good policy and good politics.

Kevin Drum 2:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (177)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BEST CARE ANYWHERE....Thanks to innovations introduced during Bill Clinton's administration, VA healthcare is now among the nation's best. It's cheaper than either private healthcare or Medicare, the quality is top notch, and it operates according to strict performance standards. Sounds like a great model, doesn't it? So how about saving the feds money by allowing vets on Medicare to switch over to the VA? Time magazine says it's no dice:

Conservatives fear such an arrangement would be a Trojan horse, setting up an even larger national health-care program and taking more business from the private sector. Congress has no plans to enlarge the scope of veterans' health care much less consider it a model for, say, a government-run system serving nonvets. But it's becoming more and more "ideologically inconvenient for some to have such a stellar health-delivery system being run by the government," says Margaret O'Kane, president of the National Committee for Quality Assurance, which rates health plans for businesses and individuals. If VA health care continues to be the industry leader, it may become more difficult to argue that the market can do better.

It might indeed become difficult. But not impossible! Give 'em time and I imagine that Bush will do the same thing to the VA that he did to FEMA, another Clinton bureaucratic success story.

It turns out that the reasons for the VA's success are pretty straightforward: there are inherent advantages to managing all of a patient's healthcare needs over a long period, something that simply doesn't happen in the pseudo-private market that most of us deal with. Phil Longman wrote about the VA miracle for the Washington Monthly last year and explained the problem with our current healthcare model this way:

As Lawrence P. Casalino, a professor of public health at the University of Chicago, puts it, The U.S. medical market as presently constituted simply does not provide a strong business case for quality.

....Suppose a private managed-care plan follows the VHA example and invests in a computer program to identify diabetics and keep track of whether they are getting appropriate follow-up care. The costs are all upfront, but the benefits may take 20 years to materialize. And by then, unlike in the VHA system, the patient will likely have moved on to some new health-care plan. As the chief financial officer of one health plan told Casalino: Why should I spend our money to save money for our competitors?

....For health-care providers outside the VHA system, improving quality rarely makes financial sense....Investing in any technology that ultimately serves to reduce hospital admissions, like an electronic medical record system that enables more effective disease management and reduces medical errors, is likely to take money straight from the bottom line. The business case for safetyremains inadequate[for] the task, concludes Robert Wachter, M.D., in a recent study for Health Affairs in which he surveyed quality control efforts across the U.S. health-care system.

As it happens, the VA model isn't the one I'd choose if I were inventing a national healthcare system for the United States. But it would probably be one component of it. And it demonstrates pretty conclusively that even in an older, sicker population, a national healthcare system can provide low-cost, high-quality service. We could do the same for every person in the country if we only had the will.

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIE BY LIE....Mother Jones has rolled out a nifty timeline tool tonight called "Lie by Lie: Chronicle of a War Foretold." It takes a few seconds to load, but once it's up it provides a comprehensive collection of statements made by Bush administration folks and others all the way up to the start of the war in 2003. You can search by date, by keyword, or by topic to create your own personalized timelines. It's fun for the whole family!

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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By: Kevin Drum

"SURPRISINGLY RELAXED"....David Ignatius is in Tehran and files an interesting report today. It's interesting mainly because its tone is so different from most of what you hear about Iran these days, even from liberals:

With a Thursday deadline looming on the nuclear issue, you might expect that Tehran would feel like a garrison town. But it's surprisingly relaxed, and I think that's because most Iranians expect the crisis will be defused somehow. The regime has been putting on a show of defiance as the U.N. deadline approaches, shooting off new missiles in Persian Gulf war games, opening a new heavy-water reactor and festooning downtown streets with banners of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah. But this isn't a militarized country, and it certainly isn't eager for confrontation with America.

....Perhaps the most interesting fact of life in Tehran this week is that you can't find anyone who is opposed in principle to dialogue with the United States. Even a few months ago, that topic was almost taboo, but now here's Ahmadinejad himself calling for a public debate with Bush. "The golden key to being popular here is to normalize relations with the U.S.," says Shahriar Khateri, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards who is now a doctor and a participant in a joint project with American scientists to study the effects of chemical weapons.

Even now, it's not too late to talk to Iran. There are things they want and things we want. If we take a toughminded approach to negotiation, which includes a starkly realistic assessment of what concessions we can afford to make and what concessions from Iran we genuinely can't live without, there's a chance we could make real progress. It's no panacea, but it's better than the alternative.

Kevin Drum 12:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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August 29, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

MEDICARE UPDATE....A reader who works for the Department of Health and Human Services emails to tell me that the government's plan to shut down Medicare payments for the last nine days of the federal fiscal year isn't as sinister as it seems:

HHS is actually bringing a new financial system online (UFMS), to replace and modernize all the old clunky legacy systems the different HHS branches operate on. That is a chaotic process that involves shutting down the old system and bringing the new one online. This is why no one will be reimbursed for those off-days. We've been notifying everyone we do business with about that shutdown since it was decided back in March. It's painful, but unavoidable unless we want to keep the old financial systems forever, and it's much better to do it now than to try to make it happen right in the middle of a fiscal year.

This sounds disturbingly plausible. Unless I hear some convincing evidence to the contrary, I'm hereby retracting my earlier outrage and declaring this a nonevent.

UPDATE: OK, I take it back. It appears that the 9-day hold was mandated by the Deficit Reduction Act of 2006 as a way of saving money. Section 5203 is the culprit. Page 60 even spells out the exact savings: $5.2 billion in FY2006, followed by -$5.2 billion in FY2007.

Consider my outrage back in force. These guys are idiots.

Kevin Drum 5:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

WELFARE REFORM....As long as we're looking at charts from the Census Bureau's latest income survey, here's an excerpt from the chart showing the poverty rate. I've helpfully annotated it.

Now, I don't really know anything about welfare reform. It's just one of those issues that I've never taken a close look at. Still, looking at this chart, it's sure hard to convince myself that welfare reform had any effect at all on actual poverty rates. The poverty rate started going down in 1994, went down for three years, went down again the year welfare reform took effect, kept going down for three more years after that, and then started going up during the Bush presidency.

I dunno. Maybe welfare reform had other beneficial effects. But it sure would have been nice if all those people who put so much energy into getting people off welfare had been able to work up the same level of energy to lift the poor out of poverty once they got back to work. It's funny how the second part of these bargains never quite seems to materialize, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

THIS JUST IN!....THE RICH ARE GETTING RICHER!....Just thought you'd all like to see the latest income report from the Census Bureau. The good news is that women are now making 77% as much as men, slightly higher than last year. The bad news is that this is only because the median income of women fell at a slightly lower rate (-1.3%) than the median income of men (-1.8%). Yipee.

Needless to say, per capita income increased by 1.5%. In other words, the total money income of the United States increased last year by more than $100 billion, and yet the incomes of the average worker went down. So where do you think that $100 billion went?

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (157)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLAMING THE MEDIA....I was watching our local news last night and the anchorman was in high dudgeon about how badly the media screwed up by giving so much attention to John Mark Karr. This morning, I see that Howard Kurtz is saying the same thing ("Aren't the TV types who pumped up this empty balloon just a little bit ashamed?"). Without looking, I have a feeling that a lot of other people are singing out of the same hymn book.

Color me confused. Sure, the collective TV news Borg embarrassed itself with its obsessive JMK coverage, but what else is new? I don't quite get why they should be especially embarrassed over this particular feeding frenzy. Is it because it turned out he didn't do it? But that wasn't their fault: half the cops and district attorneys in Colorado we're saying he was the guy. Were the news hounds supposed to just ignore them?

Look. Any news channel that didn't cover JMK 24/7 would have seen its audience defect en masse to a channel that did. Any media star that ignored the story would have seen the public stampede to a competitor who was covering it. Blaming the media is a little disingenuous, no? The fault, dear readers, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves. If we're gong to bash the media, let's at least pick a topic where the media itself is more to blame than we are ourselves.

Kevin Drum 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (127)

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By: Kevin Drum

TOO CLEVER BY HALF....Guess what? The end of the federal government's fiscal year September 30 is rapidly approaching, and George Bush's minions have had a brainstorm: federal bureaucrats should put off as many purchases as possible until October so that this year's spending looks nice and frugal. After all, we don't want any headlines about skyrocketing government spending just before the midterm elections!

Alternatively, if no actual purchases can be delayed, just delay payment for services already rendered. Like, say, for Medicare services:

The bureaucratic brainstorm was straightforward simple-minded is, perhaps, a more appropriate description don't pay doctors, hospitals and their army of auxiliaries tending to indisposed old folks and the afflicted disabled for their labors in the last nine days of the current fiscal year. Instead, send them a check for what you owe them, sometime after the first of October, the start of the government's fiscal '07. In essence, those doctors, hospitals et al. are making an involuntary loan of nine days' pay without interest.

That way, point out the gleeful budgeteers and Medicare pooh-bahs, all of whom presumably are glowing with health, Uncle Sam's Medicare tab this fading fiscal year will be $5.2 billion less than it otherwise would have been. Or at least would seem to be $5.2 billion less in Washington, as we all know, appearance and reality are not invariably the same phenomena.

Apparently, these people genuinely think that no one has ever thought of this trick before. And they're right, as long you don't include every sales manager and CFO who's ever lived. Needless to say, that $5.2 billion will get tacked right onto next year's budget, so it's not like we're saving anything. It's just that we don't have any elections next year.

Honest to God, every time you think these guys can't get any more puerile, they do. It's like having a bunch of scheming high school freshmen running the country.

Via Barry Ritholtz.

UPDATE: It looks like my outrage may have been misplaced. See here for a more mundane explanation for the shutdown.

UPDATE 2: My outrage turns out to be well deserved after all. The payment delay is indeed mandated by law, not by a squirrely computer system.

Kevin Drum 1:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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August 28, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

BLINDED BY SCIENCE....Just in case you chose today to feel a wee bit of optimism in an otherwise gloomy world, the Guardian sends along the following bracing news:

Philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals close to Pope Benedict will gather at his summer palace outside Rome this week for intensive discussions that could herald a fundamental shift in the Vatican's view of evolution.

There have been growing signs the Pope is considering aligning his church more closely with the theory of "intelligent design" taught in some US states. Advocates of the theory argue that some features of the universe and nature are so complex that they must have been designed by a higher intelligence. Critics say it is a disguise for creationism.

A prominent anti-evolutionist and Roman Catholic scientist, Dominique Tassot, told the US National Catholic Reporter that this week's meeting was "to give a broader extension to the debate. Even if [the Pope] knows where he wants to go, and I believe he does, it will take time. Most Catholic intellectuals today are convinced that evolution is obviously true because most scientists say so."

Sigh. One step forward, two steps back.

Kevin Drum 8:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (197)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRATE MODERATES....Sebastian Mallaby has a column in the Washington Post today that's so relentlessly misguided that I just don't have the energy to take it on. But I do want to say one thing about it, because it fits into the "irate moderate" theme that I was talking about a few days ago.

The column is about Wal-Mart, and Mallaby is complaining that although moderate Dems got out of the corporation-bashing business in the late 80s, they've since lost the religion. Every single moderate Dem even Joe Lieberman! is now bashing Wal-Mart. "How can supposedly centrist Democrats defend this betrayal of their principles?" he asks sadly.

Well, here's the thing. When every single moderate Dem starts attacking Wal-Mart, maybe nobody's betraying any principles at all. Instead, maybe they've figured out something that Mallaby hasn't: it's not the 80s anymore and things have changed. And one of the things that's changed is that Wal-Mart has gotten a lot bigger, unions have continued shrinking, working class wages have stagnated, and corporate power has grown tremendously. It's perfectly rational for even moderate, pro-business Dems to look at the record of the past couple of decades and conclude that things have gotten pretty far out of whack and that Wal-Mart is a good symbol of this imbalance.

In other words, reality matters, not just politics. At one of my panel sessions this weekend, a member of the audience asked if reading blogs for the past four years had made me less willing than before to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt. I answered that it would be silly to pretend that reading people like Digby and Atrios hadn't affected my political views, but that something much more important had happened during my time reading blogs: George Bush had mismanaged the country for four years. Anyone sentient who has simply watched Bush govern during that time would be less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hell, even conservatives feel that way.

The same is true more broadly. There's a reason that so many former moderates are so irate these days, and it's not because they aren't moderates anymore. It's because moderates should be irate over the events of the past decade. People like Mallaby seem unable to figure that out, and therefore assume that any change of heart is motivated not by events, but by a "betrayal" of principles.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The American economy has changed for the worse over the past couple of decades if you're part of the working or middle class, and over the same period the Newt Gingrich-inspired Republican Party has changed the nature of partisan politics into a scorched earth cultural bloodbath. Of course moderates are pissed. Of course they've changed their views. They'd be nuts not to.

POSTSCRIPT: But I will (partly) concede one point to Mallaby: it's foolish to paint Wal-Mart or the broader business community as "evil." They aren't, any more than ordinary human beings are evil. It's just that, left to their own devices, both humans and corporations tend to act solely in their own self-interest. That's why we have laws to control human behavior, and it's why we need laws and regulations to control corporate behavior. I prefer a society in which people don't gun each other down in the streets, and I also prefer a society in which middle class workers prosper when the economy grows. I support laws that encourage both.

Kevin Drum 5:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (178)

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By: Kevin Drum

MISTAH KURTZ, HE CRAZY....I'm usually willing to take on any conservative commentator if he or she happens to say something that I feel like arguing with. But there are a few in fact, three who are so fundamentally nonserious and/or insane that they're on my permanent "ignore" list no matter what the provocation. These are stictly personal choices, of course, and I mentioned a few days ago that Ann Coulter is one of them. David Horowitz is the second.

Note to David Weigel: Stanley Kurtz is the third. I recommend you update your personal blacklist.

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSING BUBBLE NEWS....James Joyner comments on the housing bubble in the Washington DC area:

Our current house sold for about 87% of what it likely would have sold for one year agobut 140% of what my wife paid for it a little over three years ago. Conversely, our new house sold for 79% of what it would likely have garnered a year ago, but 238% more than the owners paid ten years ago.

Oddly enough, James uses this as evidence that "the market is softer than it once was but hardly plummeting." Really? His house (he says) has dropped in value 13% since last year and the house he moved to had dropped 21%. In my book, that's a fairly dramatic bubble bursting, especially since pretty much everyone thinks the housing downturn has only barely gotten started.

I hope James is wrong in his estimates. If housing prices in the DC suburbs have already dropped 15% with worse yet to come thanks to the ARMs he's a fan of because "most people will sell their home and move well before the rates become variable or theyre forced to refinance" (!) the end of the bubble could be worse than I've suspected.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (130)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAME AND ARMITAGE....Catching up with the weekend news, I see that David Corn and Michael Isikoff have definitively named former State Department #2 Richard Armitage as the guy who leaked Valerie Plame's name to columnist Robert Novak three years ago. Apparently it happened on July 8, 2003, two days after Joe Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times about his prewar trip to Niger to investigate the "uranium from Africa" story.

This opens up a can of worms, no? In one sense, it's no surprise, since Armitage has been on the short list of suspected leakers for quite a long time (see this from November 2005, for example, though suspicions about Armitage go back well before that). And it certainly doesn't bolster the argument that the leak was part of a White House conspiracy to punish Joe Wilson, since Armitage was relatively dovish on the war and has never been considered a hardnosed, Rovian political player. As Isikoff and Corn put it, he was just a "terrible gossip."

And yet, there are still some pretty crucial questions remaining:

  • Who gave Novak the name "Valerie Plame"? This has always been at the heart of the mystery, and it still is. You see, Armitage apparently learned about Joe Wilson's trip to Niger on July 7 from a State Department memo that (incorrectly) suggested he had gotten the assignment because his wife, a CIA analyst, had recommended him. But that memo referred to Wilson's wife as "Valerie Wilson," not Valerie Plame.

    So why did Novak call her by her maiden name, despite the fact that she used her married name routinely? Did Armitage give it to him? That seems unlikely if he had only learned of her existence from a memo the day before. Was it Karl Rove, Novak's second source? The evidence suggests not.

    So it's somebody else. But who? Judith Miller wrote Plame's name in her notebook weeks before Novak's column appeared, but says she can't remember who gave it to her. Novak isn't talking either. But it's a key part of the mystery. Whoever gave up Plame's name not only knew about the Niger trip, but also knew that she used her maiden name when she was engaged on CIA business and deliberately leaked that name. There was malice of some kind involved in that.

  • When did Armitage realize he had screwed up? Isikoff reports that Armitage realized he was Novak's source after Novak wrote a second column on October 1 claiming that his original source was "not a partisan gunslinger." Isikoff says that after Armitage read this second column, "he knew immediately who the leaker was.....'I'm sure he's talking about me.'"

    Give me a break. Armitage talked to Novak on July 8 about Plame, a week later Novak's original column hit the street, and Armitage didn't realize then that he was probably Novak's source? That hardly seems likely.

  • Why didn't Armitage fess up earlier? Even taking Armitage's claim at face value, why didn't he go public in October about his role in the Plame case? The Justice Department had only barely started its investigation and a special prosecutor was still months in the future. Armitage could easily have spun his role as innocent, and it might have spared the White House its past few years of turmoil. Why the silence?

    The obvious answer is that Armitage is hardly the end of the story. Whether his gossiping was innocent or not about which I remain agnostic the fact remains that several other people were also aggressively talking to multiple reporters about Plame's role at the same time. If Armitage really didn't have any malicious intent, it's a helluva coincidence that he happened to be gossiping about the exact same thing as a bunch of other people who did have malicious intent.

  • When did Corn and Isikoff learn all this? Hey, we all have to make a living, but Armitage's name was swirling around the rumor circuits just a couple of months ago. Being magazine reporters and all, shouldn't they have written about this at the time instead of saving it up to help promote their book? Just asking.

That's it for now. I'll probably think of more questions later. But the bottom line is that this case is far from closed.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (139)

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August 27, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

I'M BACK....Many thanks to Laura Rozen and Suzanne Nossel for filling in for me this weekend while I was ignoring the news and hanging out with science fiction geeks at the World Science Fiction Convention. If you liked their stuff, you can find Laura at War and Piece and Suzanne at Democracy Arsenal. They're both great sites.

Before the weekend slips completely away, though, and we return to weightier subjects, I'm sure you're all wondering how things went at the WorldCon. The answer is: it was lots of fun and the panels went fine. The 2007 con is in Yokohama, so I don't think I'll be going again next year, but 2008 will be in Denver. Maybe I'll give it another go then.

And who did I meet? Aside from fellow panelists, I got to meet Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden in the flesh for the first time, which was cool, and via the Tor party I also met John Scalzi, who went on to win the John Campbell award for best new writer (as well as third place in the Hugo voting for his novel Old Man's War); James Patrick Kelly, who took third place in the novella category for "Burn"; Cory Doctorow, who took second place in the novelette category for "I, Robot"; and Kim Stanley Robinson, who wasn't up for anything this year but has won plenty of Hugos in the past. For those who are interested, here's the complete list of Hugo winners this year:

  • Novel: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

  • Novella: "Inside Job," by Connie Willis

  • Novelette: "Two Hearts," by Peter S. Beagle

  • Short Story: "Tk'tk'tk," by David D. Levine

  • Related Book: Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, by Kate Wilhelm

  • Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Serenity

  • Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Doctor Who ("The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances")

  • Professional Editor: David G. Hartwell

  • Pro Artist: Donato Giancola

  • Semiprozine: Locus

  • Fanzine: Plokta

  • Fan Writer: Dave Langford

  • Fan Artist: Frank Wu

  • John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: John Scalzi

That's it for science fiction for the moment though if anyone happens to know why Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys was withdrawn from consideration in the novel category, I'd be interested in hearing the story.

I'll be back Monday morning with the usual serious stuff. See you then.

Kevin Drum 11:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (106)

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By: Laura Rozen

BEFORE KEVIN takes away the keys, let me thank him and Washington Monthly readers for the chance to post here. It's among my most favorite and frequently visited sites, and I'm looking forward to typing in the url and getting Kevin's take on the news again, as no doubt, is everybody else. I also wanted to point out what an admirer I am of what Suzanne Nossel and her co-foreign policy practitioners at Democracy Arsenal do at their home site -- until she launched it, one did not have the chance to read the frequent, first person blog style thoughts of people like Suzanne who worked for Richard Holbrooke at the UN at a fairly senior level; the issues she raises about the viability of the UN Security Council as a forum for the US to try to resolve foreign policy problems such as Iran's nuclear ambitions are ones that any US administration - Democratic or Republican - has to face. That's just reality. It was true of the Clinton administration trying to deal with the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts as well.

In any case, you can find me at War and Piece, and keep up with my latest published work at the left tab. Thanks again.

Laura Rozen 6:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Laura Rozen

Maureen Freely, the translator for among others Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, writes in the (August 13th) NY Times book review about Turkish writers on trial:

To date, there have been more than 60 cases brought against [Turkish] novelists, publishers, journalists, scholars, politicians and cartoonists. Hrant Dink, the editor of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, currently has two cases against him open. The publisher Fatih Tas is on trial for publishing a book (by the political scientist John Tirman of M.I.T.) that takes a critical look at the Turkish Army. Two eminent professors faced charges for saying, in a never-published government-commissioned report, that Turkeys treatment of its minorities fell short of European standards, while the magazine Penguen and one of its cartoonists were prosecuted for portraying the prime minister as a kitten and an elephant, among other animals.

So far, no one has been sent to prison. Some defendants have been acquitted; others, like Pamuk, have seen their cases dropped on technicalities, while many have been given suspended sentences that were then converted to fines. But to assume that writers have nothing to fear is to underestimate the forces behind these prosecutions.

It is still not clear how Article 301 found its way into the new penal code, but the Unity of Jurists, an ultranationalist lawyers group, is behind most of the high-profile prosecutions. Its main spokesman is a lawyer named Kemal Kerincsiz. His rabidly xenophobic sound bites have turned him into a national celebrity, and his words are echoed by the thugs who have taunted, assaulted and insulted defendants and observers in the corridors of the courthouses, denouncing them as traitors and missionary children (a reference to the foreign schools many of the defendants attended) and spouting racist slogans that call to mind Berlin in 1935, while the riot police look on. ...

This is not a tug of war between East and West as the West likes to understand it: while some of Turkeys new ultranationalists are Islamists, most are old-guard, die-hard secularists. The battle is about democracy, with supporters of European Union membership hoping for peaceful change and opponents hoping for a return to authoritarian rule.

And while the context and degree are vastly different, are there not glimmers of such authoritarian tendencies in some of the lynch mob turn-it-on, turn-it-off threats against the NYT and other media for publishing the NSA domestic surveillance and Swift stories? For daring to write, as the WP's Dana Priest has done about extraordinary renditions? Heard anyone here make an argument about why such stories shouldn't be told, can't be told?

Laura Rozen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (149)

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August 26, 2006
By: Suzanne Nossel

This morning Iran opened up a plant that produces heavy water, in blunt defiance of UN insistence that it stop its nuclear weapons production activities. They did so just days ahead of an end-of-August deadline imposed by the UN Security Council. Kofi Annan is now en route to Tehran to try to forestall a deepening crisis.

The US's fellow UN members have in recent years accused us - rightly at times, of sidestepping and denigrating the world body. But if Russia and China do not stand by the UN's resolution and back up the offer of incentives dangled before Iranian President Ahmadinejad with penalties now that the overture has been rebuffed, it is they - not the US - that will undermine the United Nations. Some months ago, the second highest ranking UN official, Mark Malloch Brown ignited a firestorm when, at a conference sponsored by the Security and Peace Initiative, he laid into the US for failing to adequately back the UN.

If Russia and China back away from concerted and forceful UN action on Iran (I realize I am sidestepping what the nature of such action would be and the questions I raised last night about whether and how sanctions can be made effective, but unity and the perception of forcefulness may ultimately be what matters most here), they will deserve at least equivalent criticism.

Suzanne Nossel 9:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (187)

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By: Laura Rozen

GOP CAMPAIGN PLAYBOOK: IRAN AND JUDGES. Just over two months to go, and the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes writes that prospects for the GOP in November have improved in recent polls, but not enough. Where can President Bush start to rouse Republicans to get to the polls? Barnes: "The place to start is Iran." Here's more:

So bring on the midterm election, right? The answer is an emphatic no. As favorable as recent trends have been, they are not nearly enough to spare Republicans a nasty defeat, including the loss of the House and perhaps the Senate. The country is in a disagreeable mood and ready for a change. The Republican base is grumpy and apathetic. Bush may be America's choice to fight terrorism, but he falters on other issues. His boost in the polls doesn't mean he's now popular. He's merely less unpopular. And the August bounce may prove to be ephemeral, as earlier upticks have.

There's much to do. Standing pat and expecting terrorism to dominate the campaign would be foolhardy. ... It's Bush's actions, not his words, that will matter. Americans want to see him fighting for America's security. ...

The place to start is Iran. The diplomatic option is exhausted. No one expected the mere possibility of economic sanctions to cause Iran to halt its program to build nuclear weapons. And it hasn't. Now Bush must brook no dissent in pursuing stern sanctions. Russian and Chinese leaders have personally assured him they would back sanctions if Iran refused (as it has) to stop uranium enrichment. The president must hold them to their word, warning that their relations with America will be jeopardized if they balk. It's also time to make clear to Iran that the military option is indeed an option. ....

"A major problem for Bush and Republicans in the midterm election is turnout," Barnes continues. "Republicans have the most sophisticated turnout operation known to man. But it won't work if Republican voters, particularly conservatives, are angry at their leaders or indifferent." What's the next part of the formula to improve turnout? Barnes says it's no secret: "Besides national security, the issue that most energizes conservatives and Republicans is judges."

Laura Rozen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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August 25, 2006
By: Suzanne Nossel

Sixty-three percent of Israelis reportedly want Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign in the wake of what's perceived to be a failed operation in Lebanon. They're outraged that Israel's revered military somehow faltered in dislodging Hezbollah's leadership and securing the return of two captured soldiers.

One interesting point of comparison is to President Bush - we've now been in what a majority of Americans have perceived for some time to be a failed military operation, yet no majority has coalesced in favor of the President's stepping down. In fact, Bush was reelected nearly two years ago despite serious signs that the Iraq mission was going poorly.

Why the differences?

- The Iraq Operation did get rid of Saddam Hussein

- Part of its the structure of Israeli politics, where governments come and go based on tenuous coalitions and votes of no confidence

- The role of the military in Israeli life is far more preeminent than it is for Americans - the vast majority of citizens serve not just for an initial 3 year stint, but also thereafter in regular reserve duty. Citizens perceive themselves to rely on the Israeli army daily for the survival of the state. So the Israeli public's stake in matters of military performance is much deeper and more direct than Americans'

- With rockets raining on Northern Israel, the threat posed by Hezbollah to Israel is much more live and in closer proximity than that posed by the Iraqi insurgency to the American public - the failure to deal decisively with it is thus all the more unacceptable. Whereas a large percentage of Americans don't follow the news from Iraq, Israelis don't have the luxury of tuning out

But, on the flip side:

- Whereas the Israeli operation in Lebanon was based on widely recognized provocation, the US invasion of Iraq was based on misleading and false intelligence

- Whereas 157 Israelis were killed in a month-long operation, the Iraq war has lasted three and a half years and resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths at a cost of hundreds of billions

- The Lebanon war still has the potential to culminate in a stable, UN enforced ceasefire and a defanged Hezbollah. No comparably optimistic scenario has yet manifested in Iraq.

Your thoughts?

Suzanne Nossel 11:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Suzanne Nossel

The Administration struggled to moderate its response to Iran's belated and belittling reaction to the proposal put forward by the U.S. and other major powers for a cessation of Tehran's uranium enrichment activities in return for direct talks with the US and a series of other incentives.

This came months after what some viewed as a major concession by the Administration to agree to talk to Tehran one-on-one at all (I happen not to view that as much of a concession at all, in that it was conditioned on a foreordained outcome for such talks - he's my take on the wisdom of direct talks more broadly).

The restraint, at least in the immediate term, appears not to have paid off. The hope was that by showing patience, consulting with others, and treating Tehran with greater respect, Washington could hold together a coalition behind sanctions in the event that the positive treatment failed to induce Tehran's cooperation.

But now Russia is saying they believe sanctions would be "premature."

The posture is frustrating: Moscow had previously signaled that it would maintain unity with the international community to respond forcefully to a refusal by Tehran to abide by the terms of a UN Security Council resolution demanding suspension of enrichment activities. This will reinforce claims by unilateralists that even when the US plays ball with other powers, those others cannot be trusted to stick to the rules. It will likely also reinforce calls for a potential military response to Iranian proliferation, on the basis that aq tough-minded diplomatic solution is proving elusive.

Where the Russians have a point, though, is that sanctions tend not to work well, calling into question what could be accomplished by trying to cut off Iran. Recent sanction regimes, including most notably Iraq's, have pinched ordinary citizens harder than they have rogue regimes.

The real question here is how premature is premature - are the Russians saying a few more go-rounds should be tried before the Security Council gets tough (and that "getting tough" needs to mean something more than sanctions liable to boomerang), or do they want endless rounds of diplomatic spinning while Iran's centrifuges continue to rotate?

UPDATE: Thanks to commenters who pointed out I had written Baghdad originally instead of Tehran not used to this daytime blogging!

Suzanne Nossel 5:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Laura Rozen

BARRY GOLDWATER, liberal hero?

An interview in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine with C.C. Goldwater reveals that her HBO film to be aired Sept. 18 paints her late grandfather, Sen. Barry Goldwater, "as a kind of liberal," with testimonials from Al Franken, Sen. Ted Kennedy, James Carville and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

In fact, Hillary campaigned for Goldwater in 1964 in his race for president against Lyndon Johnson. "Hillary was a Goldwater girl," says the filmmaker, interviewed by Deborah Solomon. "She passed out cookies and lemonade at his campaign functions." Solomon calls Goldwater "a half-Jewish cowboy from Phoenix."

The film -- made on a budget of $800,000 -- will note that the straight-talking Sen. Goldwater, author of the classic "The Conscience of a Conservative" (soon to be reissued by Princeton University Press) favored abortion rights and allowing gays in the military, and refused to attend President Nixon's funeral because he "cheated" the country. In the film, former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee [sic] calls Sen. Goldwater "an unsung hero of Watergate" for helping convince Nixon to resign.

Via the Corner. Over to you, Rick Perlstein.

Laura Rozen 3:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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By: Zachary Roth

SO OKAY ITS FRIDAY AFTERNOON AND THIS IS SORT OF FUNNY... Top NYT political reporter Adam Nagourney gives us a tantalizing taste of what he likes to do for fun, with this piece on DC for the NYT's Escapes section.

Ever wondered what Nagourney thinks about the 9:30 Club? He loves it! Although its in a "dicey neighborhood", he says it "attracts an eclectic roster of bands -- think Wilco and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah," and that it has "great sound" and "heaps of personality." All in all, "one of the best places in the country to see a show."

Nagourney also recommends Al Crostino for a pre-show dinner, but says to make sure to "tell the waiter you have a 9:30 to catch." Damn, this guy knows all the angles! He also suggests having a drink at the bar at Zaytinya, and writes fondly of "tak[ing] a bath in one of its huge martinis." Quite an image.

As for the townhouses of Georgetown: "Some friends and I could hardly contain ourselves when we visited a $2.5 million, one-bedroom town house that had a mahogany paneled bathroom and a jungle-canopy bed."

I really have nothing to add to this.

Zachary Roth 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Laura Rozen

IRAN'S BACKYARD. Britain's Chatham House has released a report, "Iran, its Neighbors, and Regional Crises" (.pdf), that bluntly states that, as a result of the US's elimination of its chief regional rivals, the regimes of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the Afghan Taliban, "there is little doubt that Iran has been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror in the Middle East." Among the report's key findings:

Iran's influence in Iraq has superseded that of the US, and it is increasingly rivalling the US as the main actor at the crossroads between the Middle East and Asia. Its role within other war- torn areas such as Afghanistan and southern Lebanon has now increased hugely. This is compounded by the failure of the US and its allies to appreciate the extent of Irans regional relationships and standing - a dynamic which is the key to understanding Irans newly found confidence and belligerence towards the West. As a result, the US-driven agenda for confronting Iran is severely compromised by the confident ease with which Iran sits in its region. ...

On hostility with the US, the report argues that while the US may have the upper hand in hard power projection, Iran has proved far more effective through its use of soft' power. According to the report, the Bush administration has shown little ability to use politics and culture to pursue its strategic interests while Irans knowledge of the region, its fluency in the languages and culture, strong historical ties and administrative skills have given it a strong advantage over the West.

How the US could enhance its soft power in the region and beyond is the frequent subject of the work of among others, co-blogger Suzanne Nossel, and her Democracy Arsenal colleague Shadi Hamid.

Laura Rozen 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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By: Laura Rozen

SLOPPY BROCHURE? It is worth reading this NYT editorial, "Wanted: Scarier Intelligence," on the strangely amateurish, hyped-up House Intelligence committee report (.pdf) on the strategic threat posed by Iran:

[The report] is partly a campaign document, a product of the Republican strategy of scaring Americans into allowing the G.O.P. to retain control of Congress this fall. ....

But even more worrisome, the report seems intended to signal the intelligence community that the Republican leadership wants scarier assessments that would justify a more confrontational approach to Tehran. ...

Its obvious that Iran wants nuclear weapons, has lied about its program and views America as an enemy. We enthusiastically agree that the United States needs every scrap of intelligence it can get on Iran. But the reason American intelligence is not certain when Iran might have a nuclear bomb is because the situation is so murky not because the agencies are too wimpy to tell the scary truth.

If the Republicans who control Congress really wanted a full-scale assessment on the state of Irans weapons programs, they would have asked for one, rather than producing this brochure.

It's a sloppy report, as the NYT, Sick, Yglesias and others point out. But its purpose wasn't just to take a quick swipe at marshalling the facts in its favor. It's a campaign document, a "brochure", as the NYT put it. Is anyone in Congress doing any serious work on the Iran issue? Or by the way, on the Iraq issue? As the WP's Thomas Ricks said on a BookTV interview about his new book on the Iraq war, Fiasco, there has never been a war in the past century of American history in which there have been basically no hearings, no important investigations. Instead, we get this?

Laura Rozen 10:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Laura Rozen

EPISTOLARY DIPLOMACY. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad writes more letters:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that their countries had been subjected to tyranny from World War II victors and that they should cooperate to end the imposed world order. Ahmadinejad made the remarks in a letter to Merkel in July. A copy of it, the details of which were not made public at the time, was obtained from a diplomat who asked not to be identified. ...

"I have no intention of arguing about the Holocaust," Ahmadinejad wrote. "But some victorious countries of World War II intended to create an alibi on the basis of which they could continue keeping the defeated nations of World War II indebted to them," the English version of the letter says. ...

"Together we must end the present abnormalities in international relations, the type of order and relations that are based on the impositions of the victors of the World War II on the defeated nations," he wrote.

According to Reuters, "Merkel rejected the letter at the time as 'totally unacceptable to Germany' and said it did not deserve a reply."

Laura Rozen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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August 24, 2006
By: Suzanne Nossel

After nearly two weeks of paltry commitments and unrealized promises, it now looks as though Europe is finally stepping forward to commit to providing at least several thousand troops to man the UN mission in Lebanon. To learn why the stakes tied to this mission are as high for the UN as they are for Israel and Lebanon, read this.

France, after initially stepping forward to lead the force, then backing away and offering only an incremental 200 men, has now made good on something close to its original pledge, proferring 2000 troops and volunteering to lead the force. It did so after Italy moved into fill the gap, offering thousands of troops and proposing to take command. Tomorrow there's an EU meeting where Paris and Rome will duke it out, and further commitments are expected to be forthcoming.


- The rapidly deteriorating situation in Southern Lebanon now stands a chance of being brought under control. Confidence that the international mission will come together quickly will push Israel into a posture of greater restraint.

- Petty intra-European rivalries may have done the trick to get the continent past the set of Balkan ghosts that make EU capitals reluctant to participate in dangerous and amorphous peacekeeping missions. It makes you wonder whether a European rapid reaction force under centralized command by Brussels would ever actually be deployed. That said, this is a positive step: the U.S. cannot shoulder this mission - we badly needed others to come to the fore and lead, and it appears they now will.

- The French say that their decision to pull the trigger on a bigger commitment was based on their confidence that the rules of engagement being finalized for the force are sufficiently robust. The blue-helmeted soldiers will reportedly be authorized to shoot to protect themselves, defend civilians and - critically - to disarm Hezbollah. This will make the mission potentially one of the most robust in recent UN history. A key question is how Hezbollah reacts: do they cooperate with the international forces so as to avoid global opprobrium? will they be able to maintain the appearance of non-interference while rebuilding their capabilities behind the scenes? Will they simply bet on outlasting any muscular UN force, calculating that Europe's appetite for long-term troop commitments to the region will be limited. My guess is yes to all of the above.

Suzanne Nossel 10:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Laura Rozen

AVOIDING ANOTHER 'SLAM DUNK'? Columbia University's Gary Sick, formerly an official in the National Security Councils of presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, doesn't think much of the House Intelligence committee report (.pdf) on the strategic threat posed by Iran, referenced below:

... The author did not have the time or inclination to talk to any of the intelligence organizations that he was indicting. If he had, he might at least have caught some of the embarrassing bloopers in the text. Yet the report was rushed to public release on the day after the Aug. 22 magic date of Iran's reply to the Europeans without even waiting for it to be reviewed by the full committee.

The irony, therefore, is stunning when Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who heads the committee, explained the rush by commenting that "We want to avoid another 'slam dunk.'" The famous "slam dunk" judgment on Iraq's WMD was, of course, the result of selective reading of available intelligence, which some call cherry-picking, plus a willingness by some to subordinate the (often prosaic) facts to (sensational) ideological conviction.

That is exactly what has happened in this report. It is a sloppy attempt to lay the ground for another slam dunk judgment and a potential rush to war. It deserves to be recognized for what it is.

Among the errors Sick finds in the report:

A statement on p. 9 claiming that the 164 centifuges at Natanz are "currently enriching uranium to weapons grade." There is no evidence whatsoever that this is true -- and a lot of evidence that the tiny bit of enriched uranium produced at this site was reactor grade. ...

The summary of the study claims that Iran has "the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East," and it focuses attention on the 1300-km Iranian Shahab-3 missile and its possible future development for carrying a nuclear warhead, including a handy map of exaggerated ranges for the Shahab-3 an (as yet non-existent) Shahab-4 demonstrating that everything from Monaco to Moscow to Mumbai is vulnerable to Iranian strikes. A very quick check of the study's own sources revealed that Iran has "some" Shahab-3 missiles, but probably not more than a handful. By contrast Israel has 50 ballistic missiles with range greater than the Shahab and configured for nuclear warheads that are stored "nearby." Saudi Arabia, we need to recall, has 40-60 long-range missiles, each with a range of 2650 km and all capable of carrying a 2500 kg warhead, clearly the largest inventory of its kind in the Middle East.

The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on intelligence policy that released the report without apparently having it fully reviewed by the full committee sounded a bit chagrined about how that was handled, according to this piece by the WP's Dafna Linzer:

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that prepared the report, said he agreed to forward it to the full committee because it highlights the difficulties in gathering intelligence on Iran. But he added that the report was not "prepared and reviewed in a way that we can rely on."

So, I share Sick's question, what was the motivation for rushing the report out yesterday? What's the rush?

(Editor's note: Sick's observations were posted with permission.)

Update. Along these lines, well worth reading, from the NYT, "Wanted: Scarier Intelligence."

Laura Rozen 6:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Suzanne Nossel

It's official: Pluto has been downgraded to dwarf planet status. Mnemonic devices and classroom paper mache exhibits world-wide will be subject to immediate recall.

Why do we all naturally feel a twinge of pain at this? It's a technical development in a field most of us have nothing to do with, affecting a place we've never seen and never will. Here's my guess:

For people born in the 1950s, 60s and 70s exploration of the universe was the most exciting and dramatic thing conceivable, and Pluto was the outer edge of that frontier. While we've had unimaginable technological advances since then, neither cellphones, nor email, nor the internet, nor even google awakens the world of fantasy that space did.

Nowadays, that excitement has to a great degree died away. I took my son to the Air and Space Museum last Spring, thinking he'd have a spark of the amazement that I remembered from my childhood visits there. But now, instead of a futuristic wonderland, its become a history museum. It still exhibits the space adventures of the 1970s which were mysterious and pioneering then, but are now conjure the pages of old childhood social studies books and the scratchy sound of out of date audio and videotapes.

Maybe the thrill of outer space was bound to be fleeting. But the downgrading of Pluto is a reminder of how long gone it is.

Suzanne Nossel 12:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (155)

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By: Laura Rozen

IS THE MARKETING campaign against Iran begun? Here was the deputy director of operations for the joint chiefs of staff at the Pentagon yesterday:

The Iranian government is training and equipping much of the Shiite insurgency in Iraq, a senior U.S. general said Wednesday, drawing one of the most direct links by the Pentagon. ...

Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero ...said it is a "policy of the central government in Iran" to destabilize Iraq and increase the violence there.

"I think it's irrefutable that Iran is responsible for training, funding and equipping some of these (Shiite) extremist groups and also providing advanced IED technology to them," Barbero said. "IED" refers to the improvised explosive devices _ roadside bombs _ that have caused much death and destruction in Iraq.

The AP report goes on to note, "Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. military leaders have talked about Iran's funding of the insurgency, but generally have been reluctant to directly blame the Tehran government." And here was the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence's new report, Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat (.pdf), released yesterday:

Iran has conducted a clandestine uranium enrichment program for nearly two decades in violation of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement, and despite its claims to the contrary, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons...

Iran likely has an offensive chemical weapons research and development capability.

Iran probably has an offensive biological weapons program.

Iran has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. The U.S. Intelligence Community has raised the concern that Tehran may integrate nuclear weapons into its ballistic missiles.

Iran provides funding, training, weapons, rockets, and other material support to terrorist groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and elsewhere.

Elements of the Iranian national security apparatus are actively supporting the insurgency in Iraq.

All released one day after Iran's response of "unconditional talks" to the P5+1 demand that it suspend uranium enrichment before coming to the table. Is the timing of these statements and reports coincidental? Is it coordinated? And if so, by whom?

Laura Rozen 9:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (170)

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By: Kevin Drum

OFF TO THE CON....As I mentioned over the weekend, I'll be spending the next few days attending the annual World Science Fiction Convention being held just down the road in picturesque Anaheim. I'll be on several panels (details here), so if you're also attending come on by and see me.

Two guest bloggers will be filling in for me while I'm gone: Laura Rozen of War and Piece, and Suzanne Nossel, who blogs at Democracy Arsenal. If anything bloggable happens at the WorldCon and I'm still feeling peppy when I get home, I may toss in a few late-night posts as well.

Play nice while I'm gone, OK? I'll be back on Sunday.

Kevin Drum 1:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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August 23, 2006
By: Suzanne Nossel

First off, many thanks to my comrade-in-blogs, Kevin Drum, for giving me the opportunity to stand in his stead while he takes a well-earned, if too brief, vacation. It's a pleasure to be here as a visitor from my regular habitat at www.democracyarsenal.org

One of my co-blogganists over at DA, Shadi Hamid, is shaking of the late August doldrums by sparking a spirited discussion over the future of progressive foreign policy through a pair of posts on democracyarsenal and at the c.

I completely agree with Shadi that progressives need to work hard on articulating an affirmative vision for the future of U.S. foreign policy, one that goes beyond undoing the most obvious mistakes of the Bush Administration. I've heard a couple of party luminaries opine on the subject of late, and the cupboard is scarily bear. Here's where I part ways with part I of Shadi's description:

- While I think democracy promotion is part of a progressive program, and stands a chance of inspiring people with the positive and transformative potential of American power, the taint of the Bush years will be with us for a long time, making it difficult to talk about an ambitious agenda to sow freedom worldwide. Moreover, the Bush Administration has discredited the link between seeding democracy and averting terror, seeming to prove in Iraq that efforts to accomplish the former could could yield the very opposite of the latter. Americans' foremost concerns with security and the threat of terrorism and nuclear weapons will not be allayed through democracy-promotion efforts.

I wrote here about why a Community of Democracies cannot be the centerpiece of a progressive vision. While I believe a progressive foreign policy program must include deep exploration of how to get democracy promotion right, until we have clearer consensus on that, neither the American public nor the rest of the world will be ready for high-risk US intervention in the name of spreading democracy.

- The Princeton Project on National Security, which will issue its own report in late September, will emphasize the concept of "order building" - strengthening alliances, international instruments and multilateral institutions as a way to entrench American values. I like this formulation, though think progressives in particular need to be careful to develop it in ways that seem less technocratic and procedural and more substantive. It cannot just be about order in itself, but must also address the kind of order we aim to construct.

My twist would be along the lines of global society-building. Among the major problems we struggle with are the absence of an accepted set of norms for international behavior - without those standards, it becomes impossible for, e.g. the UN Security Council to agree on whether Iran's nuclear program warrants UN sanctions. We also lack a clear sense of countries obligations to one another - the rewards of courage and leadership within a society are fairly clear, but what does, say, a country like Italy get in return for bravely stepping up to lead the UN's treacherous Lebanon mission? Working with others to get these sorts of norms better established and understood - not just through formal mechanisms but also through broad public awareness, is to me - at least for now - a more viable focus than trying to bring change in individual societies not our own.

Suzanne Nossel 10:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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By: Kevin Drum

DIPLOMACY....The Corner clues us into the current conservative zeitgeist:

IRAN [Kathryn Jean Lopez]
I don't know if this is a bellwhether of anything but nro readers seem to be increasingly itching to bomb iran or at least tell me they are. This story is the latest cataylst.

Over at TNR, John Judis explains the glorious history behind this "itch" that's masqueraded for decades as the conservative approach to international relations. Hint: It turns out that approaching foreign affairs like a guy at a bar with six beers in him hasn't worked so well.

Kevin Drum 9:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

CLUELESS....A House committee report says we don't know squat about Iran:

Noting "significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the various areas of concern about Iran," the House Intelligence Committee staff report questioned whether the United States could even effectively engage in talks with Tehran on ways to diffuse tensions.

Got that? It's not just that we don't really know anything about their nuclear, biological, etc. programs. We don't even know enough to talk to them intelligently.

This despite the fact that Iran was declared part of the Axis of Evil more than four years ago. In response to the House report, the White House says reassuringly that they are "taking steps" to do better. Hopefully that doesn't include firing any gay Persian speakers.

Kevin Drum 7:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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By: Kevin Drum

FOCUSING ON THE MIDDLE....Why do liberals care about rising income inequality? There are several reasons, I think, but the main one isn't actually related to inequality per se: what we're really concerned about is stagnant middle class wages. We want to see consistent growth in median incomes, and that can't happen if the rich are hoovering up the bulk of the income growth. Ezra Klein, riffing on an old Paul Krugman column, puts it this way:

The concern [is] that, through mechanisms we're not entirely sure of, the very richest are siphoning off the economic growth before it flows through the middle and lower classes. The worry is about the distribution of growth, but the suspicion is that the distribution is being warped by the sheer level of inequality.

I'm not sure this gets the mechanism quite right, though. There are two basic ways that unequal growth can happen:

  1. The rich suck up vast amounts of income growth, and this leaves very little money for the middle class. Thus, wages for the middle class are stagnant or, at best, rising slowly.

  2. Middle class wages are kept stagnant, and this frees up vast amounts of money from economic growth. The money has to go somewhere, and it goes to the rich.

Now, obviously, it doesn't have to be one or the other. It could be both. But I suspect there's a lot more analytic power in #2 than in #1.

Here's the thing. One of the arguments against the proposition that government policy has a big influence over increasing income inequality is, in Brad DeLong's words, "that the shifts in income inequality seem to me to be too big to be associated with anything the government does or did." And if you're assuming #1, that's probably correct. Government policies simply don't seem to have a big enough direct impact on the pretax income of high earners to explain the vast shift we've seen over the past few decades.

What's more, the middle class is big. If there were significant pressure to keep middle class incomes rising in line with economic growth, it would take titanic amounts of government action to swim against that tide and direct the money instead to the rich. It's nearly impossible to see a mechanism that could allow this to happen.

But government policies that affect #2 seem far more plausible. For example: Appoint members to the Federal Reserve who are obsessed with inflation and act to cool down the economy at the least sign that average hourly wages are rising. Make it harder to form unions in new industries, thus reducing the bargaining power of the working class. Support free trade agreements that put downward wage pressure on low-income workers. Support tax and deregulation policies that make middle class jobs less secure.

This seems far more likely to account for most of what's happening. If you can maintain pressure on median wages, the rest happens automatically. After all, the income from economic growth has to go somewhere, and if it's not going to the middle class it's going to end up going to the rich. Where else can it go?

Now, there's certainly no reason to reduce marginal tax rates on the hyper rich in an effort to make inequality even worse than it otherwise would be. But as unjustified as this is, tax cuts aren't the main issue. Median wages are. Focus government policy like a laser on improving the wages of the middle class, and reductions in income inequality will follow.

Kevin Drum 6:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOODBATH IN IRAQ....In the LA Times today, A. Yasmine Rassam writes that Iran is out to dominate the Middle East:

It makes sense, therefore, that the first line of defense against Iran's ambitions is a stable, democratic Iraq, which would provide a formidable counterbalance to Iran. A pro-Western Iraq that develops its economic ties throughout the Middle East and beyond would compete over growing markets for oil with Iranian economic interests. More important, a democratic Iraq would be a long-sought beacon for the oppressed Shiites of the world, an alternative to the appeal of extremist Iran.

That would be great! That is, it would be great if this outcome were actually possible given the policies being pursued by the George Bush administration. But with the possible exception of Norman Podhoretz (and James Inhofe!), even the hawkiest of the hawks aren't pretending any longer that we can keep order in Iraq, let alone make it into a beacon for oppressed Shiites, with the troops we have there now. The hawks also concede that no one is planning to send more troops there, and that we don't really have more troops available even if someone were inclined to send them. The only step the hawks don't take is to draw the obvious conclusion from these two observations.

Still, it's a wrenching situation. Last year I began arguing that we should start a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq because it seemed like the best of a bad set of options. The elections gave us a reasonable pretext, and it seemed at least plausible that our continued presence was helping to fuel the insurgency while also providing the fledgling government with an excuse for failing to take responsibility for security itself. Conversely, our continuing presence would do little to stop the violence and would make it ever plainer to the world that our strained military was unable to cope with a determined guerrilla insurgency. Pulling out certainly didn't guarantee any kind of good outcome in Iraq, but it seemed like Iraq's best chance.

Was that right? There's no telling, because there's no way of knowing what would have happened if we had begun pulling out troops back then. But the decision is even starker today. On the one hand, the argument for withdrawing is stronger than ever because it's even clearer than it was last year that our troops are simply unable to cope with the emerging civil war in Iraq. On the other hand, a year ago it was at least possible that a withdrawal might help cool things down. Nobody thinks that today: a pullout now would almost certainly unleash an unbelievable bloodbath in Baghdad and beyond. This virtual certainty of slaughter is a painful reality, and it makes it harder than ever to continue counseling withdrawal.

So the choice has gotten harder and the consequences worse. Unfortunately, as bad as they are now, they're likely to be even worse a year from now. No matter what we do, Iraq is not going to be a beacon for anything for a very, very long time.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (146)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHUTZPAH....I forgot to mention this yesterday, but David Adesnik reminds me that George Bush made this comment at his Tuesday press conference:

There must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council, and we will work with people in the Security Council to achieve that objective.

As David says, "it really would be heard to come up with a statement more capable of inciting widespread laughter at Turtle Bay."

Kevin Drum 11:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

ACCOUNTABILITY....The Israeli government is being held accountable for its failures in the Lebanon war:

The Defense Ministry halted the work of its war review committee Monday to give Prime Minister Ehud Olmert more time to decide whether to authorize a fuller examination of Israel's monthlong air campaign and ground incursion against the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

....Some of the harshest criticism has come from military reservists, whose voices carry great weight in Israeli society. The veterans protesting in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening demanded that Olmert, his defense minister and the army's chief of staff step down.

....Olmert is now weighing a stronger government-appointed commission or an independent panel appointed by the Supreme Court. The latter would be the most forceful option of all but also the most risky for the prime minister, as the group would have subpoena power and would not shy away from recommending that officials be fired.

Astonishing, no? Israel fights a four-week war that fails to achieve its aims and the public is so irate that the prime minister is almost immediately forced to create a panel with the teeth to (possibly) bring down the government. Here in America, we fight a three-year war that has not only failed to achieve its objectives but has demonstrably weakened our national security, and the collective response is a yawn. What a contrast.

Back in Israel, one of the primary memes making the rounds is that their military failed because it had gotten soft after spending the past several decades occupying the West Bank and Gaza instead of preparing for real war. I'm agnostic for the moment on whether or not a better prepared army could have defeated Hezbollah I suspect it couldn't have but in any case I think Haaretz is right to say that the army is hardly to blame for this state of affairs. Rather, it's the politicians who are responsible:

It is possible to continue lamenting that there is no one to talk to, but there has as yet been no attempt to talk with the new Palestinian government. Those who refuse to speak with an elected government, and instead arrest its ministers, must take into account the price that the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli society will pay for this.

....The main danger of the unsuccessful war with Hezbollah is that the wrong conclusions will be drawn from it. The fear is that instead of exploring every possible way to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, instead of urging the international community to help us find a solution to the conflict, the "solutions" will be found in military training, additional force allocations and extended military service and reserve duty, so that everyone will be well trained for every mission.

....However, this thinking needs to be reversed. Israel must recognize the fact that security is obtained through peace agreements, and that a small country is not capable of winning everywhere and every time....An agreement with the Palestinians that will lead to quiet on the most important front has become even more urgent, so that the chief of staff who replaces Dan Halutz will not waste the army's time on policing, but will instead devote it to defending the country.

Kevin Drum 1:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (102)

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August 22, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

LARRY BARTELS ON INCOME INEQUALITY....Do Republican economic policies make income inequality worse? Or is growing inequality due primarily to wider societal trends, rather than anything the GOP does? In an email to Brad DeLong, Paul Krugman provides some evidence to back up his claim that "political and institutional change" does indeed play a large role, and one piece of his evidence is Larry Bartels' 2004 paper demonstrating that "there's a strong correlation between party control of the White House and inequality trends even in the short run."

Krugman calls Bartels' results "mysterious," and he's right. They're also fascinating. I blogged about his paper twice last year, and it's worth revisiting those posts in light of the discussion going on in the blogosphere on this topic. Besides, I haven't posted any charts and graphs for a while.

The posts were originally written on May 9 and May 10 of 2005. You can read them again under the fold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTS....Yesterday morning I presented some graphs from Larry Bartels' paper about economic growth under Democratic and Republican presidents. As long as I have the paper handy, here's another one. This graph displays income inequality under Democratic and Republican presidents since 1947. Bartels uses a very simple measure of inequality: the income of the 80th percentile family divided by the income of the 20th percentile family (raw data here). From 1947 through 1969 this ratio was steady at about 3:1, but since then it's risen to about 4:1.

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

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

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

Kevin Drum 8:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

INGRATITUDE....Most of the books publishers send me turn out to be fairly routine political tracts, but every once in a while I get a pleasant surprise. Last week it was The Best of I.F. Stone, a collection of Stone's essays from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. They are just plain fun to read.

Here's an excerpt from a 1966 essay written after a visit to Saigon. Stone is talking about the attitude he found among the cold warriors responsible for prosecuting the Vietnam War:

They place a very high value on the purity of their intentions and a very low estimate on the motivations of the Vietnamese.

....Our capacity for overlooking the obvious is enormous. Even one of the best and most independent reporters here was shocked by the anti-Americanism of recent demonstrations in Saigon and in Hu and Danang. He shares the naive view that we are there to help the Vietnamese and regards the demonstrations as sheer ingratitude. The simple fact that occupying armies, whether allied or enemy, always become unpopular hardly ever figures in official calculation.

Compare this to the attitude expressed by President Bush in a recent private meeting at the Pentagon:

More generally, the participants said, the president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd. I do think he was frustrated about why 10,000 Shiites would go into the streets and demonstrate against the United States, said another person who attended.

The more things stay the same, the more they stay the same.

Kevin Drum 5:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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By: Kevin Drum

AIRLINE BOMBING UPDATE....In the latest news on the airline bombing plot, the Observer reports that British security services have asked the FBI to please STFU and stop leaking information that might hurt their investigation. The Observer's take on this is that having already been browbeaten by the Americans into rounding up the bombing suspects before they had all the evidence they wanted, British police are now afraid that the FBI is going to screw things up even further by leaking information that makes both the ongoing investigation and the prosecution more difficult.

And what are the results of that investigation so far? Basically not much. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke assured the media on Monday that the investigation is immense, global, and meticulous, and that "the enormity of the alleged plot will be matched only by our determination to follow every lead and line of enquiry." However, the only real information he released was a report that investigators have found "chemicals, including hydrogen peroxide, electrical components, documents and other items," including martyrdom videos.

What this shows, of course, is that these guys really did want to blow up airplanes. What it doesn't show is whether they were anywhere close to having enough training and expertise to justify the massive round of fear-mongering and airport hysteria that the British and American governments so eagerly foisted on us two weeks ago. The British public is pretty skeptical:

72%, including 65% of Labour voters, think government policy has made Britain more of a target for terrorists. Only 1% of voters believe the government's foreign policy has made Britain safer, a devastating finding given that action in Iraq and Afghanistan has been justified in part to defeat Islamist terrorism.

....The findings will shock many at Westminster who had expected Labour to gain ground following John Reid's high-profile handling of the alleged plot against transatlantic airlines. Carried out over the past weekend, following the series of terror arrests, the poll shows voters do not believe the government is giving an honest account of the threat facing Britain.

Only 20% of all voters, and 26% of Labour voters, say they think the government is telling the truth about the threat, while 21% of voters think the government has actively exaggerated the danger. A majority, 51%, say the government is not giving the full truth and may be telling less than it knows.

USA Today reports some recent polling that suggests Americans continue to be more gullible than the Brits on this score. I suppose USA Today's poll may just be an outlier, but if it's true it's a sad commentary on the continuing ability of the Republican Party to scare their way to victory. There's very little evidence that the airline bombers were even remotely capable of pulling off their plot, and likewise little justification for the massive fear-mongering and hysterical anti-liquid regulations hastily put in place for air travelers. The risk of terrorists manufacturing binary explosives in the air could almost certainly have been handled in other, more effective ways, and it's increasingly obvious that the government's scare campaign was far out of proportion to the actual immediate danger. The likelihood that it was hyped more for political reasons than for genuine reasons of air safety continues to grow, and someday, when there's a real emergency, this attitude may come back to haunt us.

Kevin Drum 3:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (198)

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By: Zachary Roth

NOT SO FAST... Via Kevin, Ezra Klein argues today that Hillary should set her sights on the Senate Democratic leadership job instead of the presidency. Her ability to get press attention, her fundraising prowess, and her demonstrated skill at reaching out to opponents, Ezra says, would make her a "superlative Senate leader."

I have no opinion whatsoever on the President Hillary issue, but this seems wrong. I've been talking to alot of Republican staffers in the Senate for a forthcoming story, and almost all of them have stressed the extent to which Bill Frist's presidential aspirations have compromised his ability to run the Senate. The very qualities that made Frist seem like an attractive candidate in 2002 -- his telegenic presence, his communication skills, his ability to serve as an appealing spokesman for the party -- have in fact made colleagues resentful, often justifiably, that he's hogging scarce media attention for himself, and that he's got one eye on his presidential run. In response, for their next leader they've turned to a guy -- Mitch McConnell -- with no aspirations to higher office, or notable charisma. And on the Democratic side, Harry Reid has been largely successful as leader without ever being a very good communicator. Instead, he's proved himself a master of parliamentary maneuvering, as when he humiliated Frist by shutting down the Senate to force debate on the manipulation of intelligence on Iraq.

Successful Senate leaders (and the Dems have to be thinking about being in the majority soon, if not in January) in this hyper-partisan age aren't the media stars. They're the ones who defer to colleagues, remain largely behind the scenes, and understand the rules well enough to use them to their party's advantage. Hillary is more Frist than McConnell or Reid. She hasn't yet served a full Senate term, not nearly long enough to master its procedures. And speculation about her interest in the presidency is always going to be there. Yes, the fundraising ability is nice, but Reid hasn't been bad on that front either, and you have to assume no one's gonna get the job unless they can raise money.

Zachary Roth 2:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

FOUR YEARS OF BLOGGING....Did you know that today is my fourth blogiversary? Now you do. How should I celebrate?

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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By: Kevin Drum

A MISSING LINK?....The Chronicle of Higher Education notes today that the Department of Education's "Smart Grants" program, designed to reward students majoring in engineering, mathematics, science, and certain foreign languages, is missing a subject: evolutionary biology.

The department has an index of classification numbers referred to as "CIP codes," for the Classification of Instructional Programs for all academic areas of instruction,

Under that classification scheme, there is a heading for "Ecology, Evolution, Systematics and Population Biology," under which 10 biological fields are defined. For instance, ecology is 26.1301, and evolutionary biology is 26.1303.

But on a list that defines majors eligible for the grants, issued by the department in May, one of those 10 is missing. On that list, the classification numbers rise in order from 26.1301 to 26.1309 with the exception of a blank line where 26.1303, or evolutionary biology, would fall.

....The absence is conspicuous: the only major with evolution in its title was one of only three among the physical sciences that appears to have been deleted from the list. For unknown reasons, "behavioral sciences" and "exercise psychology" are also absent.

Just a coincidence, I'm sure. Ed Department folks were unavailable for comment, but a spokescritter suggested this was just a "clerical consolidation of some kind." Roger that.

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

JIHADI MEDIA STRATEGIES....Hezbollah is both a Shiite group and a jihadist group. So what do Sunni jihadis think of it? Do they oppose Hezbollah because they're uneasy over the potential "Shia-ization" of the jihad, or do they support them out of solidarity with anyone willing to give Israel a black eye?

Marc Lynch suggests that although the Sunni-Shia debate has, overall, been "a bit of a red herring" because, in the end, pretty much everyone ended up praising Hezbollah the jihadi community is the one place where it's alive and raging:

This rift between a mainstream Arab public (which dismisses Sunni-Shia differences in favor of populist mobilization against Israel, America, and their own regimes) and a much more doctrinaire jihadist community fits well within the "Al-Qaeda Media Strategies" argument I put out there a few months ago. At that time I argued that al-Qaeda Central (OBL and Zawahiri) preferred to use mass media to reach out to the "median Arab" while Zarqawi and the new hard-core jihadis preferred online media aimed at an already mobilized base. Some of that same dynamic is playing out with regard to Lebanon and Hezbollah. Zawahiri has tried to appropriate the Lebanese struggle, because that's where the median Arab-Muslim is, while many within the on-line communities are sticking to their doctrinal guns and denouncing Hezbollah no matter how unpopular that position may be with wider publics.

So: appeal to swing voters or concentrate on turning out the base? It's not just American political parties that fight over this.

And the end result? Marc's guess is that over time Hezbollah will eventually fade away into its usual regional role: "And when that happens, what will be left is a more radicalized Arab and Muslim public, angrier with America and Israel, more open to the possibility of violent resistance, and more open to Islamist politics. In other words, in the medium term al-Qaeda benefits from the war because it furthers its 'clash of civilizations' agenda."

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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By: Kevin Drum

CRICKET CONSPIRACY THEORIES....I don't know if you've been following the great England-Pakistan cricket debacle, but to make a long story short it revolves around charges of ball tampering against the Pakistani team. The umpire in Sunday's game accused Pakistan's captain of fiddling with the ball (spitballs are OK in cricket, it turns out, but messing about with the seam isn't) and ordered up a replacement ball after penalizing the Pakistani team five runs.

This is all a bit incomprehensible to those of us raised on baseball, where balls are replaced at the merest sign of a scuff mark, but whatever. The thing that's really fascinating about this kerfuffle is that (a) the umpire declined to explain to the Pakistani captain exactly what kind of ball tampering he suspected them of, and (b) he still hasn't produced the ball so that fans and the press can see what the problem was. All very weird. But a story in the Guardian puts it all in perspective:

During Pakistan's tour of England in 1992, the ball was changed during a one-day international at Lord's amid allegations that the change had taken place because of tampering by the Pakistani bowlers. But subsequent attempts to track down the ball proved fruitless and it is believed to remain under lock and key.

Seriously? This is like the Area 51 of English cricket. Nobody was ever allowed to see the notorious ball from the 1992 match and "it is believed" to remain under lock and key. Presumably in some James Bond-like vault deep in the basement of the English sporting equivalent of MI6.


Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY FOR MAJORITY LEADER?....Ezra Klein informs the readers of the LA Times this morning that Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy "looks a little dimmer each day." Why? Among other reasons, because liberal bloggers, "the weathervane of the emergent left," can't stand her.

I have a funny feeling that this matters a lot less than bloggers would like, but no matter. Ezra makes the argument that she'd be a better Senate majority leader anyway:

Clinton possesses qualities that could turn the thankless, grueling realities of congressional preeminence into something glamorous and powerful. She's a human megaphone, for one, able to focus the press corps on whatever it is she wishes to say that morning. Such a skill would prove invaluable to a legislative leader, allowing her to set the agenda and advance her priorities even from the minority.

Second, she's an extraordinary fundraiser, far and away the best the Democrats have. She's raised $33 million for a Senate reelection campaign that lacks a serious opponent partly the benefit of retaining the Clinton Rolodex, partly a function of her own magnetism.

Perhaps most important, her ability to bury enmities and forge alliances has been astonishing.

As Ezra notes, speculation about Hillary angling for the majority leader position was floated by Steve Clemons a couple of weeks ago and refloated by Time magazine this weekend. At the same time, it's worth mentioning a couple of things. First, the three qualities Ezra mentions above are pretty good attributes for a presidential candidate too, aren't they? Second, the same Time piece that retailed the majority leader rumor also noted that when Democratic pollster Mark Mellman asked a focus group of 10 African-American women to name their all-time political hero, "eight picked Hillary." This intense popularity among black voters is one of Hillary Clinton's hidden strengths, and one that I suspect the largely white blogosphere takes too little note of.

And what do I myself think of HRC's presidential chances? I don't know. I literally have no idea. I'm just waiting and seeing.

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE AND PENSIONS....The problem one of the problems, anyway with employer-based healthcare and pension plans is that healthcare and pensions are long-term benefits. They only provide real security for new workers if the company itself remains a thriving concern 50 years later, but a company that provides retirement benefits for 50 years is much less likely to thrive than one that doesn't. Malcolm Gladwell comments:

Here, surely, is the absurdity of a system in which individual employers are responsible for providing their own employee benefits. It penalizes companies for doing what they ought to do....The current arrangement discourages employers from hiring or retaining older workers. But dont we want companies to retain older workers to hire on the basis of ability and not age? In fact, a system in which companies shoulder their own benefits is ultimately a system that penalizes companies for offering any benefits at all.

....Under the circumstances, one of the great mysteries of contemporary American politics is why [General Motors CEO Rick] Wagoner isnt the nations leading proponent of universal health care and expanded social welfare. Thats the only way out of G.M.s dilemma. But, from Wagoners reticence on the issue, youd think that it was still 1950, or that Wagoner believes hes the Prime Minister of Ireland. One thing Ive learned is that corporate America has got much more class solidarity than we do meaning union people, the [United Steelworkers'] Ron Bloom says. They really are afraid of getting thrown out of their country clubs, even though their objective ought to be maximizing value for their shareholders.

GM's management faces higher costs than its competitors in other countries because it has to pay its employees' healthcare costs and Toyota and Volkswagen don't. GM's workers are no better off: their pension benefits are at risk because their continued existence depends on the health of one company, rather than the health of an entire country. So who benefits from this lopsided system? No one except the insurance and financial services industries that administer these plans.

And yet, as Gladwell points out, America's corporate chieftans remain reluctant to endorse the common sense notion that the risk associated with healthcare and pensions ought to be spread as widely as possible and administered as cheaply as possible. Their ideological blinkers ("Eeek! It's socialism!") are simply too strong. Conversely, young companies like Google ignore the whole issue because they figure they'll always be young and fast growing. They're wrong, but that's what they think.

It's not clear what it will take to get everyone to start thinking straight about this. Maybe a few more big bankruptcies will do the job.

Via Ezra Klein.

Kevin Drum 12:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (120)

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August 21, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

ISLAMOFASCISM....Spencer Ackerman spent last week visiting the Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan, and comes back with a news flash for the president about the term "Islamofascist":

Practically everyone I've spoken with in Dearborn, from oncologists to students to clerics, brings up the term unprompted to explain how they feel themselves under collective suspicion from the Justice Department, a tone they feel Bush has set himself by using the phrase.

....Last week in the Weekly Standard, the apparent inventor of the phrase, Stephen Schwartz, dismissed those who'd be offended by "Islamofascism" as "primitive Muslims." That should tell you all you need to know about those who use the term. I confess to using it, if ironically, in a recent piece, and here in Dearborn I learned precisely why you and I shouldn't. The people it infuriates aren't primitive. They're the moderate, pro-American, well-integrated Muslims who form one of the greatest bulwarks against Al Qaeda that the U.S. possesses, and they see the term as draining their Americanness away.

It's remarkable that anyone needs to be told this, but obviously they do. So now they've been told. And I have some advice of my own for George Bush: you should probably avoid any phrase that's used primarily in the fever swamps of the hawkish blogosphere. Following their lead will merely dig you into an even deeper hole than you've already dug all by yourself.

Kevin Drum 4:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (263)

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By: Kevin Drum

INCOME INEQUALITY AND BASEBALL....Brad DeLong has a long post today summarizing a discussion among several eminent economists about income inequality. The question is not whether income inequality has skyrocketed in the past few decades everyone agrees that it has but whether or not government policies are (partially) responsible for this rise.

I think everyone agrees that government policy is not entirely to blame. As society has gotten more technological and more complex, the value of people who can analyze and direct that complexity has increased relative to those who can't. In general, this means that smart, highly educated people are worth more today than in the past.

But I've never believed this is anywhere near the whole story. After all, it's not just the top 20% who have gained relative to the bottom 80%, it's also the top 1% who have gained relative to the 10% just below them. Do we really believe that the top 1% have an enormous educational advantage compared to the top 10%? And that this gap has increased over the past 50 years?

I don't. So if education is only part of the story, what else has contributed? Since I'm not an economist, I'm going to answer with an analogy that I suspect no self-respecting professional would be willing to make. Here it is.

Consider professional baseball. Today's top players routinely sign contracts that pay them $5 million a year. A-Rod signed one that paid more than $10 million. But 50 years ago, the highest paid player earned about $300,000 (in inflation-adjusted terms). Why the 30x increase?

It's certainly not because A-Rod is relatively more valuable to the Yankees' pennant chances today than, say, Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris were in their day. Rather, what's happened is that there's fantastically more money sloshing around in professional baseball than in the past thanks to skyrocketing TV, radio, and merchandise sales. More money means higher salaries.

But that's not automatic, of course. There's another piece to the baseball puzzle: in 1966 the baseball players union hired Marvin Miller, a former negotiator for the U.S. steel workers, to head their organization. In 1972 they went on strike, and ten years later the reserve clause was history, free agency was in full swing, and player salaries were going through the roof. This is not a coincidence.

Similarly, the broader economy has grown enormously in the past few decades, but without a Marvin Miller on their side almost none of this growing pile of money has gone to middle class workers. And this, I believe, is the root cause of skyrocketing income inequality: economic growth combined with stagnating median wages has produced a colossal amount of extra money sloshing around in the system, and it has to go somewhere. And since the rich and powerful run the system, where else is it going to go but to the rich and powerful? They aren't going to dole it out to the less fortunate out of the goodness of their hearts, after all.

This is the reason I support unionization, especially private sector unionization. Government policy since the mid-70s, increasingly obsessed with controlling inflation, has also been increasingly anti-union (remember, Jimmy Carter was all set to break the air traffic controllers strike too; PATCO endorsed Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election because they thought they could get a better deal from him), and this has been largely responsible for keeping middle class wages down. As the baseball example suggests, bargaining power is key, and absent unions, blue collar and middle class workers have never had much leverage in the job market. It's only been collective bargaining that's allowed them to make significant wage gains.

So: change the rules. Create a more union friendly environment and allow workers in service industries by far the biggest part of the economy these days to unionize more easily. Sure, there's a price to be paid for this, just as there is with any large-scale change in power: strikes, slowdowns, annoying work rules, and so forth. But the benefit would be rising median wages thanks to the bargaining power of unions, and that in turn would reduce the amount of money that's being paid out to the hyper-rich just because it's there and someone has to get it. The result would be higher middle class wages and a far healthier economy, but less money for the top 1% and a general decrease in income inequality.

I'm not pretending this is the whole story, or that there aren't plenty of other societal and governmental trends that affect income inequality. But I suspect this is one of the biggest. Give workers the power they had back in the 50s and 60s and the rest will follow.

POSTSCRIPT: Fire away in comments, but please spare me any bollocks about how globalization means we can't afford to pay workers higher wages. Maybe that's true in the auto and textile industries, but service industries have practically no exposure to globalization and they're the worst offenders of all. You can't outsource janitorial work and you can't do your grocery shopping in Bangalore, so why are janitors and Wal-Mart clerks paid so little? It's not because of globalization. It's because they aren't unionized. Needless to say, Wal-Mart is keenly aware of this.

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (163)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICAN KABUKI....As always, the Republican Party is determined to ferret out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The politically convenient part of it, anyway:

Last week, House Republican field hearings in San Diego explored the societal and governmental costs of illegal immigrants' use of health-care facilities and welfare. Another in Houston looked at "the criminal consequences of illegal immigration." One near here, in Sierra Vista, examined the nation's strained technical capacity to monitor "the efforts of terrorists and drug cartels" trying to "infiltrate American soil."

At a field hearing Tuesday in Gainesville, Ga., Rep. Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr. (R-Ga.) brushed off complaints by those who wanted a more balanced witness list. "What I wanted was witnesses who agree with me, not disagree with me," he told reporters.

These aren't "field hearings." They're campaign rallies. They should be paid for by the RNC, not the taxpayers.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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August 20, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PLUTON UPDATE....Pluto is not out of the woods yet. Apparently the Pluto skeptics are unhappy with the shilly-shallying "pluton" classification proposed earlier this week and are regrouping for a fresh assault. Being a planet, they say, is like being a neighborhood bully: you'd better be the only one in your neighborhood.

The dissenters, from Uruguay, France, Brazil, Italy and elsewhere, have what they call a simpler idea. To be a planet, they suggest, the object must not only be round, but be "by far" the largest body in its local population.

So Pluto, which is only marginally bigger than several other pieces of Kuiper Belt junk, wouldn't make the cut. Ceres, which is less than twice the size of the next biggest asteroid, would also be tossed aside. And the solar system would end up with eight planets.

Plutophiles better hop to it. If they don't keep the pressure up, the natural scientific instincts of the astronomical community might peek out just long enough for them to demote Pluto after all. The battle isn't won yet.

Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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August 19, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE MONGERING....Chad Orzel says the latest blog timewaster is to head over to the Quote Randomizer and pick the first five quotes that "reflect who you are or what you believe."

Sounds like fun. But on the theory that you can judge a man more by his enemies than his friends, how about the first five quotes that you think are a crock of shit? Here are mine:

  1. You should not live one way in private, another in public.
    Publilius Syrus (~100 BC)

    Why not? Do you really want your neighbors walking around in public in their underwear scratching their butts?

  2. If you think you can win, you can win. Faith is necessary to victory.
    William Hazlitt (1778 - 1830)

    Then how come Rudy Ruettiger doesn't play for the Steelers?

  3. I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn something from him.
    Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642)

    Galileo obviously didn't get out enough.

  4. Nobody talks so constantly about God as those who insist that there is no God.
    Heywood Broun (1888 - 1939)

    I so wish this were true. And perhaps if I had died in 1939 I would have believed it too.

  5. You can never learn less, you can only learn more.
    Keith Degreen

    Then explain George W. Bush.

Kevin Drum 9:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (132)

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By: Kevin Drum

WORK HARDER!....The New York Times reports on the sad state of the American vacation:

The Conference Board, a private research group, found that at the start of the summer, 40 percent of consumers had no plans to take a vacation over the next six months the lowest percentage recorded by the group in 28 years. A survey by the Gallup Organization in May based on telephone interviews with a national sample of 1,003 adults found that 43 percent of respondents had no summer vacation plans.

....The idea of somebody going away for two weeks is really becoming a thing of the past, said Mike Pina, a spokesman for AAA, which has nearly 50 million members in North America. Its kind of sad, really, that people cant seem to leave their jobs anymore.

Is it really true that workers can't get away from their jobs these days? People who say this are usually referring to the stereotypical BlackBerried office worker who won't go to the men's room without a cell phone and are obsessed with keeping in touch 24/7, but let's face it: that's actually a fairly small proportion of the population. What's up with the rest of us?

Do we just prefer spending our money on other stuff? Do we find vacations uninteresting? Boring? Is there less interest in visiting far off relatives? I dunno. But I will say this: back when I worked closely with Europeans, this was probably the most common area of incomprehension. Almost unanimously, they though we were flatly insane to take only two weeks of vacation a year. Even the workaholics thought so.

Kevin Drum 6:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (129)

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By: Kevin Drum

WORLDCON IS HERE....Back on April Fool's Day I wrote a post mentioning that the world science fiction convention would be held this year in Anaheim, just a few minutes away from Chez Drum. I wondered aloud if I should go.

Well, I'm going. In fact, to make the whole April Fool's theme really appropriate, the organizers of the con decided that my fan base was so enormous that I should speak on a few panels. With some trepidation and a bit of coaxing, I agreed.

Now the time has come: LACon IV is next week, running from Wednesday through Sunday. I'll be there from Thursday through Saturday (yes, I'll have guest bloggers filling in here) and if you're attending I urge you to validate the good sense of the convention organizers by attending my sessions. I'll also be wandering around the show and attending other program sessions throughout the day, so if you see me be sure to tap me on the shoulder and say hi.

As with any convention, you should check the schedule after you register to make sure there haven't been any last minute changes, but at the moment here are the three panels I'll be on. I promise you that I didn't pick the session titles:

Thursday, 8/24, 1:00 PM
Participants: Kevin Drum, Warren Adler (Moderator)

Friday, 8/25, 1:00 PM
Participants: Cory Doctorow (Moderator), Kevin Drum, MaryAnn Johanson, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Phil Plait

Saturday, 8/26, 4:00 PM
Participants: Kevin Drum, Craig Newmark, Eric S. Raymond (Moderator), J. Michael Straczynski

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

BOMB PLOT UPDATE....A couple of days ago I linked to an AP article that quoted unnamed Pakistani officials claiming that the suspects in last week's airline bombing plot "had not attended terror-training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan and had relied on information gleaned from text books on how to make bombs." Today, though, the LA Times says that the Pakistani officials they've talked to have a different story:

Officials investigating the alleged plot to blow up transatlantic airliners say at least seven of the suspects arrested in Britain had dual citizenship and made frequent trips here over the past three years, gaining information on how to make detonators and explosives.

.... Investigators say they still don't know whether the suspects were being directed by militants in Pakistan or came here seeking inspiration and expertise. And while it is unclear whether they received training in making bombs, officials here say they are certain the British-based suspects at least received information on detonators and explosives.

Which "officials" should we believe? There's no telling yet. But this is the latest.

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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August 18, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

FEAR MONGERING....The Republican campaign message this year is an unsubtle one: If you vote for Democrats, terrorists will kill you. John Dickerson argues today that Dems should fight fire with fire:

Here's my advice: The Democrats should embrace fear-mongering more passionately.

....The question the Democrats should be asking is whether Bush's policies are inspiring the people who want to kill us....This question derives from a central one that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked in his famous October 2003 memo: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" In the short term, the answer seems to be no.

....My fear is that Democrats won't have the guts to fight fear with fear, perhaps because they don't want to be accused of being politically craven on an issue where they are weak....Still, if Democrats don't aggressively ask whether the Republican policies are inspiring a greater number of people to devote their lives to killing Americans than would otherwise be the case, we'll miss a chance to have the kind of messy, realism-filled public debate we somehow continue to skirt. Democrats should stretch beyond the bumper sticker and ask the really scary questions.

I think Dickerson is proposing the right question. The big problem with the militarism inherent in the Bush Doctrine is that even if it does manage to kill off a bunch of terrorists and disrupt al-Qaeda's current operations itself a debatable proposition it's still a bad strategy because in the long run it encourages jihadist sympathies and creates far more new terrorists than the ones we kill off today. As with George Bush's domestic policy, it creates the illusion of present-day action at the expense of long-term disaster.

But I'm still not sure Dickerson's advice is good. People who are scared want action right now, which means that a strategy of fear-mongering is simply not compatible with the long-term policy of tactical restraint, counterinsurgency, and economic engagement that Democrats need to be selling. Dickerson is right that fear-mongering helped John F. Kennedy win election in 1960, but it also contributed to the hysterical atmosphere that helped bring us the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and finally the Vietnam backlash. In the long run, did that help either the country or the Democratic Party?

That's an extremely arguable point. But I'd like to hear those arguments before I buy into fear-mongering as a 2006 campaign strategy.

Kevin Drum 7:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (226)

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By: Kevin Drum

PAKISTAN....Michael Crowley writes something that's been bouncing around in my brain for quite a while too:

Whenever I read about Pervez Musharraf's tenuous grip on power I marvel at how alarmingly much the U.S. has riding on one pretty questionable guy. Our Pakistan policy gets scant coverage, but shouldn't an unstable nuclear-armed nation awash with Islamic radicals be the real "central front" of the war on terror and not Iraq? (Not in the sense of invading Pakistan, of course.) What I wonder is how Democrats feel about our Pakistan policy and what, say, a president Hillary would do differently. It seems that, apart from quelling anti-U.S. hatred generally, there's not a whole lot we can do there beyond crossing our fingers. To the fallout shelters!

Now, obviously the United States has had a schizophrenic attitude toward Pakistan for a long time, and Pakistan's enrollment in the nuclear club has made things even more complicated than before. But Crowley has a good point: does anyone actually have any proposals for a different and more productive way of dealing with Pakistan? I haven't gone out of my way to read up on this, but I'd also say that of the thousands of op-eds I've read over the past few years virtually none of them have had anything constructive to say in this regard.

Am I wrong about this? Where's the place to go for sharp and knowledgable Pakistan analysis?

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (121)

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By: Kevin Drum

HAIL CHIRAC THE MAGNIFICENT!....Several people have suggested to me that my disgust over Jacques Chirac's apparent flip-flop on sending French troops to Lebanon is misplaced. Their basic argument is that no one ever expected France or anyone else to commit troops to Lebanon in the first place, and Chirac was merely involved in creating a convenient fiction that allowed everyone to back off to the old status quo without actually admitting they were doing so. It was great diplomacy, and if you look at what everyone's real goals were, Chirac didn't betray a thing.

I'm not sure I buy this, but I admit it's more sophisticated than my view and perfectly plausible as well. If you're interested in a somewhat more detailed version of this argument, Matt Yglesias makes it here.

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Kevin Drum

DARK ALLIANCE....On the tenth anniversary of "Dark Alliance," Gary Webb's landmark series in the San Jose Mercury News about the CIA's support for drug lords who backed and funded the Nicaraguan contras, Nick Schou says it represented a low point for American journalism. But not for Webb:

All three major U.S. dailies, The Times included, debunked a claim that Webb actually never made that the CIA deliberately unleashed the crack epidemic on black America. The controversy over this non-assertion obscured Webb's substantive points about the CIA knowingly doing business south of the border with Nicaraguans involved in the drug trade up north.

....Spurred on by Webb's story, the CIA conducted an internal investigation that acknowledged in March 1998 that the agency had covered up Contra drug trafficking for more than a decade. Although the Washington Post and New York Times covered the report which confirmed key chunks of Webb's allegations the L.A. Times ignored it for four months, and largely portrayed it as disproving the "Dark Alliance" series. "We dropped the ball on that story," said Doyle McManus, the paper's Washington bureau chief, who helped supervise its response to "Dark Alliance."

Webb made some mistakes in his reporting, but his main conclusions turned out to be correct. The CIA didn't actively support crack sales in American cities and Webb never said they did but they did tolerate those sales even though they were well aware of what was going on. It was all for the greater good, you see.

But for some reason this was too conspiracy theorish for the American press. They leaped on Webb's modest inaccuracies instead of following up on the underlying scandal he had uncovered, a scandal that turned out to be accurate in its broad outlines. Sometimes, you see, even the most outlandish conspiracy theories turn out to be true.

UPDATE: Eric Umansky covered this story for Mother Jones back in 1998. His summaries are here and here.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

SECURITY MOMS....A Pew Research Center study indicates that Republicans have lost their lead among "security moms":

The study, which examined the views of married women with children from April through this week, found that they support Democrats for Congress by a 12-point margin, 50 percent to 38 percent. That is nearly a mirror-image reversal from a similar period in 2002, when this group backed Republicans 53 percent to 36 percent.

....Significantly, Pew and other polls in recent days have found little or no advantage for Republicans in the aftermath of last week's foiled terrorist plot in London, even as Vice President Cheney and GOP leaders have warned that the event showed the risk of voting for a Democratic Party that they say is dominated by security doves.

Democrats can maintain this lead if, starting right now, they relentlessly attack the failed militaristic approach to terrorism that Republicans have championed ever since 9/11. There's a different, more workable approach that relies more on military transformation, economic engagement, public diplomacy, and serious homeland security instead of color codes and scare tactics, and I'll bet the American public is finally ready to give it a hearing. It's time to start offering the voters some common sense.

Kevin Drum 1:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (156)

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August 17, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

LA MARSEILLAISE....I think Jacques Chirac could fairly be deemed today's Wanker of the Day:

France has rebuffed U.N. pleas to make a major contribution to a peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon....

The French decision...seriously complicates U.N. efforts to get a vanguard force of peacekeepers from powerful European countries within the next two weeks. Senior U.N. peacekeeping officials said they had hoped that a commitment to have French troops form the "backbone" of the U.N. peacekeeping mission would spur other countries to join.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called Chirac today to see if he would change his mind. Following the meeting, Chirac's office released a statement indicating he had not yielded. He said that France would only double its contribution to the U.N. force, which is headed by a French general, and hoped to continue commanding the mission.

....France has expressed concern that Hezbollah fighters are not prepared to disarm and may turn their guns on French troops. In 1983, Islamic militants killed 58 French paratroopers in bomb attacks in Beirut.

Please. Chirac didn't realize before today that Hezbollah was unlikely to disarm voluntarily and might present a danger to troops that tried to force its hand?

Let's summarize: Chirac personally rammed through the ceasefire resolution; insisted that it call for a UN force; did everything he could to imply that France would contribute several thousand combat troops; but in the end is only willing to stand up a 200-man military engineering company. Because Hezbollah might shoot back. And yet he still wants France to command the overall force.

Give. Me. A. Break.

Kevin Drum 6:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (143)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON WARRANTLESS WIRETAPPING....When I posted earlier today about the court ruling striking down the NSA's domestic spying program, all I had to go on was a two-paragraph AP dispatch. Since then, Glenn Greenwald has read the opinion and lays out what the court said. A few highlights:

Third, the court ruled rather emphatically and without much doubt that warrantless eavesdropping violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures (generally speaking, searches undertaken in the absence of a probable cause warrant).

....Sixth, the court swiftly and dismissively rejected the administration's claim that the AUMF constitutes authorization to eavesdrop in violation of FISA, noting that FISA is an extremely specific statute while the AUMF says nothing about eavesdropping. In any event, as the court noted, since the court found warrantless eavesdropping unconstitutional, Congress could not authorize warrantless eavesdropping by statute.

....Finally, and really quite extraordinarily, the court (a) declared the NSA program to be in violation of FISA, the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment and (b) issued a permanent injunction enjoining the Bush administration from continuing to eavesdrop in violation of FISA.

In other words, if this decision isn't overturned on appeal then the NSA program is unconstitutional, not merely a violation of FISA. Thus, it wouldn't be possible for new legislation to legalize it.

Jack Balkin has more analysis here. He likes the result, but says that "much of the opinion is disappointing, and I would even suggest, a bit confused." This matters, since an appeal will certainly be filed immediately. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 4:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (116)

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By: Kevin Drum

BINARY EXPLOSIVES....Here's what Time had to say last week about the mechanics of the airline bombing plot:

Their plan was to smuggle the peroxide-based liquid explosive TATP and detonators onto nine different planes from four carriers....

[According to the FBI,] "TATP was popularized as a main charge explosive in suicide bombs used by Palestinian terrorist groups." Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted in 1996 for plotting to simultaneously bomb up to a dozen U.S. commercial airliners flying in the Far East, had manufactured TATP detonators....More recently, British shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to detonate his device with TATP as the initiator.

In other words, TATP is dangerous stuff. But the airline bombers weren't planning to take TATP aboard their flights. They were planning to take its liquid precursors on board and then mix them together while the plane was in the air. That's why we're not allowed to pack gels or liquids in our carry-on bags anymore.

So: just how easy is it to mix up those precursors and blow up a plane? The Register's Thomas Greene provides would-be terrorists with their marching orders:

Don't forget to bring several frozen gel-packs (preferably in a Styrofoam chiller deceptively marked "perishable foods"), a thermometer, a large beaker, a stirring rod, and a medicine dropper. You're going to need them.

It's best to fly first class and order Champagne. The bucket full of ice water, which the airline ought to supply, might possibly be adequate especially if you have those cold gel-packs handy to supplement the ice, and the Styrofoam chiller handy for insulation to get you through the cookery without starting a fire in the lavvie.

Once the plane is over the ocean, very discreetly bring all of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several trips to avoid drawing attention. Once your kit is in place, put a beaker containing the peroxide / acetone mixture into the ice water bath (Champagne bucket), and start adding the acid, drop by drop, while stirring constantly. Watch the reaction temperature carefully. The mixture will heat, and if it gets too hot, you'll end up with a weak explosive. In fact, if it gets really hot, you'll get a premature explosion possibly sufficient to kill you, but probably no one else.

After a few hours assuming, by some miracle, that the fumes haven't overcome you or alerted passengers or the flight crew to your activities you'll have a quantity of TATP with which to carry out your mission. Now all you need to do is dry it for an hour or two.

The genius of this scheme is that TATP is relatively easy to detonate. But you must make enough of it to crash the plane, and you must make it with care to assure potency. One needs quality stuff to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale," as Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson put it. While it's true that a slapdash concoction will explode, it's unlikely to do more than blow out a few windows. At best, an infidel or two might be killed by the blast, and one or two others by flying debris as the cabin suddenly depressurizes, but that's about all you're likely to manage under the most favorable conditions possible.

There's more at the link. The good news is that it will make you feel a little more confident about the safety of flying overseas. The bad news is that it will make you feel a little less confident about the terror announcements of our national governments. Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (141)

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By: Kevin Drum

DON'T FEED THE TROLLS....There are a few people I don't bother commenting on, and among them is Ann Coulter. But it's not because she's so outrageous. It's because she's so juvenile. She's like Lillian Hellman but without the style or wit. What's the point? And why do people bother responding to her obviously contrived provocations?

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (181)

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By: Kevin Drum

WARRANTLESS WIRETAPPING BARRED....Breaking news on the NSA's domestic spying program:

A federal judge ruled Thursday that the government's warrantless wiretapping program is unconstitutional and ordered an immediate halt to it.

U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit became the first judge to strike down the National Security Agency's program, which she says violates the rights to free speech and privacy.

Obviously this will be appealed, and may soon be made moot by new legislation in any case. But it's still encouraging that at least a few judges can still make sensible rulings these days.

UPDATE: Further analysis here.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (185)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE END OF GROVER'S DREAM....Jeffrey Birnbaum reports on the mood on K Street:

In what lobbyists are calling a harbinger of possible upheaval on Capitol Hill, many who make a living influencing government have gone from mostly shunning Democrats to aggressively recruiting them as lobbyists over the past six months or so.

"We've seen a noticeable shift," said Beth Solomon, director of the Washington office of Christian & Timbers, an executive search firm that helps to place senior lobbyists and trade association heads.

When pollsters predict a Democratic win this November, I'm hopeful but cautious. But when the lobbyists start betting serious money on the proposition, maybe it's time to start believing.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING BOMB PLOT....The Associated Press provides the latest news on the airline bombing plot:

Home Secretary John Reid, Britain's chief law-and-order official, acknowledged that some of the suspects would likely not be charged with major criminal offenses, but said there was mounting evidence of a "substantial nature" to back the allegations.

"Mounting" evidence? Shouldn't we already have lots of evidence after over a year of intensive surveillance? WTF is going on here? And then there's this:

Two top Pakistani intelligence agents said Wednesday that the would-be bombers wanted to carry out an al-Qaida-style attack to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 strikes, but were too "inexperienced" to carry out the plot.

The two senior agents, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if the terror cell members arrested in Pakistan and Britain had appropriate weapons and explosives training, they could have emulated massive attacks like those five years ago in New York and Washington as well as the July 7, 2005, London bombings.

Sure, and if I had an IQ of 200 and a PhD in oncology maybe I could find a cure for cancer. But since I don't, no one should stay up nights waiting for me to produce one. Likewise, there are lots of dimwit copycats who'd like to be the next Osama bin Laden, but they're not worth more than a routine roundup unless they have the serious operational capacity to do something about it. These guys, on the contrary, "had not attended terror-training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan and had relied on information gleaned from text books on how to make bombs."

So: was this a serious conspiracy? Or was it like the plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge that turned out to be a mentally disturbed dude with a blowtorch? Or the financial district alert in New York City that turned out to be based on information more than three years old? Or the plot to blow up the Sears Tower that turned out to be "more aspirational than operational"? Or Jose Padilla? What news about this plot are we going to discover buried on page A13 a couple of weeks from now?

I won't pretend to know what to think about the way this has been handled. Was it about winning elections? Building public support for draconian security legislation? Plain old bureaucratic incompetence?

Or was it real?

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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August 16, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HOUSING BUBBLE WONKERY....In my housing bubble post this morning, I mocked the idea that the bubble would end in a "soft landing" and rashly predicted that home prices in Southern California would drop 10-20% over the next two years. A few commenters suggested that (a) a 10-20% drop would be a soft landing and (b) a 40% drop might be more likely.

As to the first, you can decide for yourself what constitutes soft and what constitutes hard. A 20% drop seems pretty hard if you're the one trying to sell a house, but it probably seems soft if you're figuring its effect on the overall economy. Eye of the beholder and all that. As for the second, though, here's what my prediction is based on. It's a wildly simplistic analysis, but hey this is a blog! If I can't be simplistic here, where can I be?

Take a look at the chart on the right. The dark blue line shows the actual median price of new and resold homes in Southern California since 1988. Prices peaked in 1991, then dropped, and then started shooting upward again in 1996.

Now, where would home prices be if they had increased steadily since that time instead of booming and busting? If you assume a "natural" rate of growth of 5% per year, the median price today would be about $360,000. If you assume a 6% growth rate, the median price would be $430,000.

The actual median price today is $492,000. So how much is that overvalued? If you assume that houses "should" appreciate at 5% per year, prices are 36% higher than they should be. If you assume 6% per year, prices are 15% higher than they should be.

My guess, based on the record of long-term historical growth, is that the 6% number is closer to the truth. Thus, even after the skyrocketing growth of the past few years, houses in Southern California aren't that overpriced. I'd be surprised if prices dropped from their peak more than 20% though of course, if someone lobs a nuke at Abqaiq and oil prices go to $300 a barrel, all bets are off. On the other hand, if the bubble bursting of the early 90s is any indication, it might be four years before prices start to rise again, not two. We'll see.

POSTSCRIPT: Needless to say, there are much more sophisticated ways of estimating the "true" value of housing, including comparisons with rental prices, number of homes bought as speculation, and so forth. This is just the one that seems to make sense to me. Take it with a great big shaker of salt.

Kevin Drum 7:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

GENERIC POLLS....Chris Cillizza reports that the average Democratic lead in generic congressional polls ("If the congressional election were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate in your district or the Republican candidate?") has increased from 13.4 percentage points to 14.8 percentage points.

So: is a landslide in the works? It's worth remembering that Democrats held a lead of about ten percentage points in generic polls in June 2004 and ended up losing seats in November. So you can probably figure that Dems will lose about nine or ten points of their advantage by election day.

Of course, it's not June, it's August. And there's no presidential election to amp up turnout, blanket the airwaves with ads, and provide helpful coattails in marginal races. It's just the opposite this year. What's more, even if the Dems lose ten points of their lead and end up with an advantage of four or five points on election day, they'll probably pick up 20 seats or so. Cross your fingers.

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By: Kevin Drum

PURER THAN CAESAR'S WIFE....What's the real story behind last week's airline bombing plot? Several days ago NBC News reported that the timing of both the arrests and the announcement of the plot was a subject of dispute between the British and the Americans:

A senior British official knowledgeable about the case said British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence, while American officials pressured them to arrest the suspects sooner.

....The British official said the Americans also argued over the timing of the arrest of suspected ringleader Rashid Rauf in Pakistan, warning that if he was not taken into custody immediately, the U.S. would "render" him or pressure the Pakistani government to arrest him.

Since then, information about the plot, whether leaked or official, has been surprisingly sparse. Government officials are usually quite (anonymously) chatty about this kind of thing. James Galbraith comments:

No bombs have been found. No chemicals. No equipment. No labs. No testing ground....Apparently, not one ticket had been purchased by the detainees....[And] you need something else. It's a document called a passport. Apparently, some of the detainees don't have them.

....Finally, confessions. Twenty-four suspects have been arrested [and] they will have a chance to make an uncoerced statement of their intentions in open court. By then the authorities will have found the labs, testing grounds, airline tickets and passports. Credible witnesses too will have emerged. By then the young zealots will have no expectation of acquittal or mercy, and nothing to lose. We may therefore confidently expect them to face the judges and declare exactly what their motives and intentions were. If they do that, I'll eat my hat.

Finally, Andrew Sullivan links to Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who has some similar suspicions:

Many of those arrested had been under surveillance for over a year....Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests. Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes which, rather extraordinarily, had not turned up in a year of surveillance.

....We then have the extraordinary question of Bush and Blair discussing the possible arrests over the weekend. Why? I think the answer to that is plain. Both in desperate domestic political trouble, they longed for "Another 9/11". The intelligence from Pakistan, however dodgy, gave them a new 9/11 they could sell to the media. The media has bought, wholesale, all the rubbish they have been shovelled.

The Guardian, of course, has already reported that the testimony of Rashid Rauf, the British citizen who was picked up in Pakistan, is suspect since it came only after he had been "broken" under torture. Was his testimony real, or was he merely telling his interrogaters whatever he thought they wanted to hear?

As little a year or two ago I would have rolled my eyes at the idea that even the timing of the arrests was politically motivated, let alone the possibility that the plot itself was being exaggerated. But today? I don't know. I can only quote Teresa Nielsen Hayden yet again: "I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist."

Beyond that I'll just say this: there better not turn out to be even a shred of evidence that any part of this was exaggerated or timed or hyped for any reason that's not related with absolute certainty to the requirements of the police and counterterrorist community. Bush and Blair better be purer than Caesar's wife on this one.

Kevin Drum 5:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOLBROOKE v. KRISTOL....Charlie Rose hosted Richard Holbrooke and Bill Kristol on his show a couple of days ago and asked them what to do in Iraq. At about 43:00, here was Kristol's answer: "Let's see where we are 3-6 months from now." Groan. A little later Rose pressed him on what it would take to convince him that Iraq was unsalvageable (49:30):

If the government falls, if Sadr becomes the unquestioned leader of the Shia, if we have real big civil war and ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, then it may well be that unfortunately the terrorists will have done their job, we will have failed to defeat them early enough to prevent them from lighting the matches that set off the timber.

Holbrooke, who I have considerable respect for, pointed out that we are well down the road on all three of those criteria, but unfortunately wasn't willing to go much further than Kristol when it came to concrete action. He said carefully that "the situation in Baghdad is approaching the point of untenability" but declined to recommend either a pullout, an increase in troops, or staying the course. So what does he recommend?

Holbrooke did at least do a good job of putting a stake through the idea that more troops are available. Kristol made the laughably timid suggestion that perhaps 40,000 more troops in Baghdad would quiet things down, and Holbrooke reminded him that we needed more troops than that just to keep the peace in Kosovo, which has one-tenth the population of Iraq. (Given its population, we'd probably need 150,000 troops in Baghdad alone to have any chance of keeping things under control there.) Moreover, as he pointed out, we don't have 40,000 more troops, we'd be idiots to pull them out of Afghanistan, the American public wouldn't stand for it, and George Bush has shown no inclination to do it. So it's not going to happen.

Holbrooke is a guy with a ton of credibility. When he says that diplomacy has to be backed up by a credible threat of force, he obviously means it: he recommended military action twice in the Balkans during the 90s. At the same time, when he says it should be a last resort, he obviously means that too: he devoted uncounted thousands of hours to serious, toughminded diplomacy during the same period. Some of it worked and some of it didn't, but his dedication to the cause is hardly questionable.

And despite his continued unwillingness to flatly face the reality that we can't afford to stay in Iraq any longer, he had by far the better of the argument when the subject turned to Iran. Diplomacy is not, he reminded Kristol, in and of itself a sign of weakness. Of course we should be willing to talk directly to Syria and Iran, rather than leaving the job to third parties that we don't really trust to represent our interests in the first place. Kristol could do little more than splutter that there was no point since these countries already knew what we wanted and should just go ahead and knuckle under right now. It displayed an appreciation of human nature and the realities of foreign affairs that a junior high school student would have gotten low marks for.

Kevin Drum 2:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (135)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FIVE STAGES OF BUBBLE-OSITY....Here in paradise, the housing boom is over:

Southern California home sales fell to their lowest level in nine years last month as price appreciation continued to decelerate, data released Tuesday showed.

....The figures could rev up the debate over whether the Southland's housing market will be able to navigate a "soft landing" that produces only moderate price declines, or face a brutal correction.

....At the very least, "current trends suggest that the market is heading into a lull," DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage said.

This "soft landing" stuff is all the rage lately, and it reminds of nothing so much as Elisabeth Kbler-Ross's five stages of grief. It goes something like this:

  1. We're not in a bubble. Prices are just recovering from years of underappreciation.

  2. It's a bubble, but it's a sustainable bubble because the fundamentals of the market have changed in the past decade. People need to recognize this. (Note: this stage is usually recognizable by an explosion in the popularity of increasingly desperate and bizarre financing options.)

  3. Yes, growth is slowing, but we think we'll navigate a soft landing. It's absurd to think that housing in [fill in area where you live] will actually lose value.

  4. This is a disaster! Somebody better step in and do something! People are losing their life savings!

  5. Buyers have learned a permanent lesson this time. Homeowners need to accept the reality that the bubble of the past five years was a one-time fluke and we'll never see it happen again.

The same psychology that keeps prices rising during a bubble also mercilessly drives them down when the bubble is over. After all, who wants to buy a house if it's not going to appreciate? We should expect bumpy weather ahead.

UPDATE: I know that making predictions is stupid, but here's mine anyway: home prices in Southern California will drop 10-20% and bottom out in 2008, after which they'll start to rise again.

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (197)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLUTONS!....The world's astronomers have been unable for years to decide whether Pluto is really a planet or not. On the one hand, it's basically not a planet by all the normal criteria. On the other hand, they're afraid of being ripped to pieces by gangs of angry children if they stick to their guns and reclassify Pluto as a random iceball.

So, in a compromise worthy of the UN Security Council, a recently formed committee has proposed the creation of a new category of objects called "plutons." It's a floor wax and a dessert topping!

[Richard] Binzel and other committee members stressed that categorizing Pluto as a pluton was in no way meant to downgrade its longtime status as the ninth planet.

"We might be demoting it from the list of eight classical planets, but we're promoting it by making it the head of its own special class," said Owen Gingerich of Harvard University, who chaired the panel.

Am I the only one who thinks this sounds like something even a second grader wouldn't fall for? Even a dumb second grader? "No, you won't be going to regular third grade with the rest of your friends next year, Billy. You'll be going to second grade again. A special second grade!"

I just want to go on record as saying that this is one of the most dimwitted proposals I've heard in a long time. It's craven and calculated, it's going to confuse everyone, and it creates God knows how many new "planets." At least three including that lyrically named favorite of lovers everywhere, UB313 and maybe dozens depending on how many more big slushballs we discover in the future.

And what are they afraid of, anyway? The dinosaur folks managed to change the name of the brontosaurus to apatosaurus and lived to tell the tale. Surely astronomers can work up the courage to disappoint their nieces and nephews too?

UPDATE: Besides, doesn't "pluton" sound like a subatomic particle, not an astronomical body?

Kevin Drum 1:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (132)

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August 15, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CORNER WATCH....Over at NRO, the odious Mark Levin finally figures out an appropriately Swift Boat-ish response to the criticism George Allen is enduring after being caught on tape calling a dark-skinned volunteer for Jim Webb's campaign "macaca":

Not one word about the Webb campaign's dirty trick in having one of its volunteers, camcorder in hand, harrassing Allen as he campaigns around Virginia.

Man, I can't wait for that to become the talking point du jour among the wingnuts. How dare the Webb campaign videotape Allen at a public speech in front of hundreds of people! What a dirty trick!

(A summary of the macaca controversy is here, in case you haven't been keeping up. Video here.)

UPDATE: As several commenters pointed out, Levin's comment is doubly ridiculous because employing people to shadow your opponent's campaign is standard practice today. Jake provides some amusing detail about Allen's own shadowing habits:

In fact Allen has two, yes two trackers, who have been following Webb around even before the primary. The odd thing is Allen didn't have a single tracker following Webb's primary opponent, Harris Miller.

And one of the trackers had an arrest warrant issued for his arrest because he was super aggressive, even following Webb to the restroom.

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By: Kevin Drum

PARALLEL WORLDS....New York magazine asks, What if 9/11 never happened? Props where they're due: Andrew Sullivan's breezy, bloggy, occasionally self-mocking parallel universe construction is by far the highlight of the package. (Which is not a high bar. Most of the entries are so dull they make you long for the gray, bubbly grandeur that is dishwater.)

On the other hand, Matt Yglesias's parallel universe is pretty good too. Why didn't New York ask him to contribute? At least he used to live there.

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By: Kevin Drum

PAYING WOMEN MORE....I don't think this should come as a big surprise, but it's nice to see some empirical evidence backing up common sense:

American women earn substantially more money and narrow the long-standing gender gap in income if other women in their workplaces reach the ranks of senior management, according to a new national study presented here.

....There is a stereotype in the United States that women who become bosses are ruthless and that they treat female subordinates worse than they treat men. Advocates for diversity, by contrast, have long argued that opening the management door to women is not only the right thing to do but will lead to more equitable workplaces in general. [Philip] Cohen's study is the first empirical evidence that these advocates are right but only when women get to very senior positions.

Cohen and University of California at Irvine sociologist Matt L. Huffman found that women earn about 81 percent of what men make, and that figure remains unchanged when the number of junior-level women managers rises from 2 percent to more than 50 percent. But when women become senior managers, female workers earn 91 percent of men's salaries.

When senior staff meetings are all male, gender issues simply don't come up. On the rare occasions when they do, they're brushed aside with minimal discussion. It's not necessarily that the men at the table are anti-woman (though some may be), but that they have other things to do and just don't consider gender equity an important problem unless their lawyers tell them someone is suing them.

By contrast, even a single woman at those meetings can change the tone, even if only modestly. A woman who brings up a gender issue can't be brushed aside nearly as easily, and there's an underlying feeling of guilt that can't just be laughed off. It's probably only a change at the margin, but apparently that margin is good enough for a 10% pay increase. Not bad.

Kevin Drum 2:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOOKING FOR AN AD MANAGER....Are you the kind of person who enjoys making phone calls in a good cause? We're looking for an ad manager to do prospecting, cold calling, research, etc. for both the magazine and the website. Ideally it will be someone based in the D.C. area, but we may be able to work around that for the right person.

If you're interested, there's a description of the job here. You can send a cover letter and resume to service@washingtonmonthly.com with the subject line Advertising Manager Search.

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICANS AND NATIONAL SECURITY....Ed Kilgore writes about the current national security landscape:

Back during the last presidential campaign, I became convinced, mainly through conversations with undecided voters back home in Georgia who wound up voting for Bush's re-election, that the most powerful thing the incumbent had going for him was a rough and unsophisticated argument that went like this: Some Arabs came here and killed a bunch of Americans. George Bush went over to Iraq and killed even more Arabs. Since then there have been no attacks. He must be doing something right.

I had that exact same conversation with a friend prior to the election, and it took me by considerable surprise. "We haven't been attacked since 9/11," he told me, "and back then I would have bet big money against that."

Which just goes to show....something. My first thought in the aftermath of 9/11 was that it was a brilliantly planned one-off attack and that a serious followup was pretty unlikely, especially given the massively heightened security that we put up afterward. Since I didn't expect any big follow-on attacks, the fact that we didn't have any didn't affect my perceptions of George Bush one way or the other.

Obviously I was in the minority, though, and Ed thinks that Bush profited mightily from the widespread belief that the Iraq war had prevented further attacks. Therefore, anything that reminds the public that we're still in danger is, contrary to conventional wisdom, a big negative for Bush:

To the extent that clearly focusing on what they would do to deal with the actual terrorist threat undermines both parts of the Republican argument, while connecting public unhappiness with Iraq with residual concerns about terrorism, Democrats should hammer away on this subject every day. This administration has been a national security disaster. The "flypaper" has worn out, leaving us with a horrific mess in Iraq, an energized and growing jihadist threat, and a country more exposed than ever to terrorism. It's time for a dramatically new direction.


Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (176)

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By: Paul Glastris

DEADBEATS AND ALL-STARS....In the Washington Post today, E.J. Dionne notes that Democrats have a problem: the big money donors who contributed millions of dollars to the party during the 2004 race have largely disappeared now that the election was over. As Rahm Emanuel put it, "they walked off the field."

But what about the Democratic politicians themselves, many of whom are in line for powerful committee chairmanships if they take control of the House in November? Surely Democratic House members hate being in the minority enough that those in safe seats are burning through their cell phone minutes to raise money for challengers trying to knock off incumbent Republicans.

You might think that. But you would be wrong. Or, at least, youd be wrong in a lot of cases.

Through a congressional source, weve obtained an internal scorecard showing which House Democrats have been the most diligent at dialing for dollars on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and which have been the least diligent. The DCCC sets fundraising goals for each member based on committee assignment and whether the member stands to become a committee or subcommittee chair should the Democrats win the majority. Each member is then expected to contribute to the team in three ways: by paying dues directly to the DCCC (which the committee then spends on TV ads in competitive districts); by holding fundraisers that benefit the DCCC; and by directly giving to or raising money for Democratic challengers through a program called Red to Blue.

You can read the results in the two lists below, which also show how much money each member has in his or her campaign bank accounts. As you can see, there are some real heroes, like Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Ca) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla), who have raised millions for their fellow Dems. And there are serious laggards, like Reps. Pete Stark (D-Ca) and Jim Moran (D-Va), who have not only raised little or nothing for others but havent even paid their own dues.

Technically, these deadbeats have until the end of the year to meet their quotas. But given that theres this election thing happening in November, maybe itd be a good idea for these folks to start picking up the phone, you know, now.

Paul Glastris 1:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE (FORMERLY) MUSHBALL MIDDLE....Josh Marshall talks about the change in his writing over the past few years:

I guess I'm one of those partisanized moderates Kevin Drum has spoken of (not sure that's precisely the phrase he used.) That leads to a certain loss of nuance sometimes in commentary and a loss in the variegation of our politics generally. As a writer, often it's less satisfying.

But I cannot see looking back on all this, the threat the country is under, and saying, I stood aloof.

I've tried harder than Josh to retain a moderate tone over the years, but this describes me pretty well too. And just recently I've been thinking about what a genuinely profound story this is, one that the mainstream media ought to be more interested in. Instead of writing incessantly about "angry bloggers," they ought to be asking why so many mild-mannered moderate liberals have become so radicalized during George Bush's tenure. It deserves attention beyond the level of cliches and slogans.

Kevin Drum 12:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (180)

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August 14, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

BOMBING IRAN....You know what? I'm tired of weenie neocons. The usual knock on them is that they're too bellicose, too ready to use force, too unwilling to face the disastrous outcomes of their own policies. And that's all true. But check out this typical piece of shilly-shallying from Bill Kristol:

So the Democrats are hopeless. Unfortunately, back in the real world, Bush administration policy hasn't been particularly strong either....What good has the recent affinity for carrots done us? Are our enemies in retreat? Are Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moktada al-Sadr, Bashar Assad, the Sunni holy warriors in Iraq, al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers in the United Kingdom, and Kim Jong Il on the run?

....The State Department has succeeded in the past year in making the Bush administration more Euro-friendly and U.N.-attentive than ever. For this, the president has reaped no political benefit at home and the dangers continue to mount abroad. How Bush deals with Ahmadinejad's terror-supporting and nuclear-weapons-pursuing Iran will be the test.

Fine. Kristol thinks diplomacy is a waste of time, a pastime suited only for fainthearted liberal appeasers. But is he willing to tell us, in clear and declarative sentences, exactly what he thinks we ought to do? No. Instead, he ends his piece with standard-issue Delphic mush, saying only that how Bush handles Iran in the future "will be the test."

But the options for dealing with Iran are limited. If diplomacy and sanctions aren't worth bothering with, that leaves military action. A few weeks ago Kristol was willing to say that we should "consider" a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, but now he no longer seems willing to go even that far. Why not? Is he afraid that teevee producers won't invite him on their shows anymore if he comes right out and says what he actually believes?

Kevin Drum 5:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (163)

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By: Kevin Drum

"WHY DO YOU ASK?"....Here's the latest plain talking from our plain-talking president's chief flack:

Q Does the President support the Republican candidate for Senate in Connecticut?

MR. SNOW: The President supports the democratic process in the state of Connecticut, and wishes them a successful election in November.

....Q Why aren't you committing why wouldn't the President commit support for the Republican candidate in that

MR. SNOW: I don't know. Why do you ask? Is there something about the candidate that I should know about that would lead to judgments?

Golly. Why do you ask? Surely you understand that the president merely wants what's best for the country, and supports candidates regardless of party?

Sheesh. But here's a serious question: When was the last time George Bush declined to support a Republican candidate for anything? When was the last time any president declined to support his party's nominee for a major office? David Duke?

Kevin Drum 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (151)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIE DETECTION....The Wall Street Journal writes today about an Israeli-designed system called Cogito that's intended to catch terrorists in airports:

Here is the Cogito concept: A passenger enters the booth, swipes his passport and responds in his choice of language to 15 to 20 questions generated by factors such as the location, and personal attributes like nationality, gender and age. The process takes as much as five minutes, after which the passenger is either cleared or interviewed further by a security officer.

At the heart of the system is proprietary software that draws on Israel's extensive field experience with suicide bombers and security-related interrogations. The system aims to test the responses to words, in many languages, that trigger psycho-physiological responses among people with terrorist intent.

If you think this sounds like it wouldn't work very well, you'd be right. Even in a test environment, the machine missed 15% of "terrorists" and incorrectly flagged 8% of innocent travelers. Cogito's goal is to get that to 10% and 4%, which is still far too high to be of very much value.

But that doesn't mean the idea is useless. As USA Today reported a couple of years ago, "The Defense Department's Polygraph Institute at Fort Jackson, S.C., is financing at least 20 projects aimed at finding a better lie detector. Another Pentagon office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is exploring magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other technologies." You can read more here about the fMRI research, which is based on recent findings that different areas of the brain are active when a person tells the truth as opposed to when they lie.

This technology isn't ready for prime time yet, not least because sticking people inside an MRI machine at airports isn't exactly a feasible concept. But I wouldn't be surprised if a better and more reliable version of this technology were available within five to ten years. If, say, it could replicate Cogito's planned accuracy, and the two were combined, the resulting device might have a 99% chance of catching terrorists and only a .1% rate of false positives. That would be genuinely useful.

Needless to say, success on this front could produce all sorts of grim 1984-ish scenarios as well. But I'll bet that it's coming, like it or not, and as a tool against terrorism it would be revolutionary. Elimination of traditional airport screening would be only the most trivial of its uses. I'll bet you're all keen with anticipation, aren't you?

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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By: Kevin Drum

CEASEFIRE....As I write this, the ceasefire in Lebanon has just gone into effect. CNN reports that it's holding at the moment, but will it still be in place by the time I wake up tomorrow morning? Wait and see.

At the moment, though, Haaretz is reporting that the IDF wants to leave Lebanon relatively rapidly:

The army is recommending that once the cease-fire takes effect, Israel should begin withdrawing its forces from Lebanon relatively quickly.

The intention is for the forces to move back to a line north of the border with Lebanon within about 10 days, or as soon as the Lebanese Army is ready to begin entering South Lebanon. This means that the IDF will not be conducting searches for Hezbollah fighters or arms caches in the areas that it has captured over the last few days, which the army defined as "the heart of the operational campaign" against Hezbollah.

Once the Lebanese Army is fully deployed in the south, together with a beefed-up UNIFIL force, the IDF troops will withdraw completely.

There is little chance that this withdrawal can be pulled off without incident, but Israel would be wise to stick to their plan regardless. They've made their point, they've significantly damaged Hezbollah's infrastructure, and the last thing they need now is to get stuck in southern Lebanon again.

Needless to say, Hezbollah would be wise to abide by the ceasefire too. They've also made their point, their organization is intact, and they remain a political force within Lebanon. The last thing they need is to give Israel an excuse to stay behind.

Here's hoping that both sides can exercise restraint. Here's hoping the Lebanese cabinet can get its act together. Here's hoping the French-led peacekeeping force can actually keep the peace and it's too bad the United States has no troops to contribute to this effort, isn't it?

Here's hoping. But wisdom is not an abundant quality on the ground in the Middle East, is it?

Kevin Drum 1:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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By: Kevin Drum

ETHNIC PROFILING....Does the airline bombing plot strengthen the argument for ditching fainthearted liberal sensitivities about ethnic profiling? Stephen Bainbridge makes the conservative case for sticking to our principles:

First, while I'm fully cognizant of Emerson's dictum about consistency, it's worth pointing out that many advocates of profiling are also opponents of affirmative action. In the latter context, they argue that color-blindness is a basic moral and constitutional precept. If we sacrifice our principles in the name of expediency, aren't we betraying what makes us different from our opponents?

Second, Judith Miller observes that:

The alienation felt by many Muslims in Western lands is not common in the U.S. And given the integration of Muslims from many Arab and non-Muslim lands in American life, the Muslim rage that devastated Parisian suburbs last summer and shredded the tolerant culture of the Netherlands is not widespread here.

My concern is that if American Muslims start to experience "flying while Muslim," that will promote precisely the sort of alienation and rage we say in too many European Muslims.

This is wise advice. The airline plot, after all, was initially uncovered because "British authorities received a call from a worried member of the Muslim community, reporting general suspicions about an acquaintance."

Ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims is a blunt weapon that enrages and alienates everyone in the targeted group. In the short run it holds out the promise of preventing terrorist activity and producing useful leads, but in the long run it turns into a vicious circle: it radicalizes more and more of the Muslim community and reduces the number of friends and acquaintances likely to expose that radical behavior to law enforcement. The end result is a catastrophic increase in the very behavior it was meant to control.

This is hardly the only situation where people have a hard time accepting the long-term consequences of short-term policies that seem appealing on the surface. Conservatives and liberals both do it. Usually, though, the results are merely bad, not deadly. In this case, they're both.

Kevin Drum 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (133)

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August 13, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

FORBEARANCE....Over at bloggingheads.tv, Robert Wright mentions something that's been on my mind for a while. He's talking with Ann Althouse about the war in Lebanon and makes the following observation:

What I think is actually sometimes the smartest thing to do in response to terrorist provocation, which is forbearance, is very hard to counsel. [But] if you ask what kind of shape would Israel be in if they had done a day's worth of retaliation, and since then just endured any missiles, and said, "OK, look, at this point there's no excuse for what they're doing, we're not even fighting them," I think Israel as a nation would be more secure than they are.

But it's very hard to convince people of that, and I admit that rhetorically it's hard to make that a winning strategy.

Caleb Carr makes a similar point in Saturday's LA Times. After describing the escalating cycle of reaction and overreaction by Israel, the Palestinians, and Hezbollah, he asks:

Is there an alternative to this pattern of mistakes and countermistakes? There is, but it involves a quality that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have ever come close to mastering: tactical restraint in order to achieve strategic advantage. Simply put, this involves looking past immediate and all-out retaliation as the best method of countering threat. It is not a call for turning the other cheek; rather, it suggests that savagely swinging back every time one's cheek is dealt so much as a brushing blow does not amount to effective boxing, much less enlightened belligerent behavior.

It's human nature to demand action following an attack. Any action. Counseling restraint in the hope that it will pay off in the long run is politically ruinous.

But our lives may depend on figuring out how to make this case. If it wasn't obvious before, it should be obvious by now that conventional military assaults are usually counterproductive against a guerrilla enemy like the ones we're fighting now. We can't kill off the fanatics fast enough to win, and in the meantime the war machine simply inspires more recruits, more allies, and more sympathy for the terrorists. It's not the case that conventional military force is always useless in these cases the Afghanistan war still holds out hope of success but as Praktike says, it usually results in a terrorism own goal.

Unfortunately, I'm not smart enough to figure out how to formulate this argument in an effective way. I wonder at times how Harry Truman managed the trick at the dawn of the Cold War, fending off the "rollback" hawks and convincing the public that containment was a more realistic strategy. But despite reading a fair amount about the era, I still don't know what the key was though the presence of a sane faction in the Republican Party at the time was certainly a factor.

Beyond that, of course, actually having a coherent long-term strategy to pair up with a short-term counsel of forbearance would make the job easier. Ditto for a more aggressive short-term approach to homeland security. But neither of those will do the trick alone. Someone has to figure out how to sell the basic plan.

I'm just meandering around the point here, trying to marshal my own thoughts by setting them down on the blog. If that seems a bit pointless, I apologize. But I'm probably going to keep doing it from time to time. After all, I'd hate to think that this is a flatly impossible problem.

Kevin Drum 2:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (206)

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August 12, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CEASEFIRE IN LEBANON....Steve Clemons claims that the French are wholly responsible for brokering Friday's agreement on a UN-sponsored ceasefire in Lebanon. Here's how he describes it:

First, during the first UN Resolution that was cobbled together, the French signed on to the U.S. language. While that first resolution favored Israeli interests disproportionately and did not call for an immediate Israeli military withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, it laid the groundwork for a ceasefire and for a deal on the Shebaa Farms.

The French encouraged the Arab League and Lebanon to object to the resolution particularly over the failure to call for an immediate Israeli withdrawal. The French then jumped ship and sang in unity with Lebanon and the Arab League and then pushed Hezbollah to accept something reasonable between the original US/French position and the later French/Arab League position.

In the end, the French maneuvered American agreement on the ceasefire and Israel's troop withdrawals and left Israel diplomatically cornered.

If John Bolton wants to take credit for any of this, let him but it was the French all the way.

I'll be curious to see if other sources confirm this. Or is this merely the version of events from Steve's French sources?

In any case, the Israelis are apparently claiming they will cease offensive operations at 7 am on Monday, and Hezbollah says that once the ceasefire takes effect they will "adhere to it without hesitation." We'll see.

But ceasefire or no, the real outcome of the war won't be known for quite some time. Conventional wisdom suggests that Israel didn't win and Hezbollah didn't lose, but the fighting is far from over. As Shmuel Rosner puts it, "The impending cease-fire will be the beginning of the real battle determining who will be remembered as the victor." As so often in modern war, public opinion is king.

Kevin Drum 8:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (131)

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August 11, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE DEMOCRATIC PLAN....Andrew Sullivan, in an apparent attempt to drive me insane, writes today that although he's appalled by Republican ineptitude in the war on terror, he's still waiting for a serious Democratic plan to come along that he can get behind. Without that, no dice.

As it happens, a mere four months ago Senate and House Democrats produced a document called "Real Security" that spelled out just such a plan. It was and let me be crystal clear about this a truly crappy document, a stitched-together pastiche that any major party should have been embarrassed to let see the light of day. A bright high school senior with an internet connection and a copy of Microsoft Publisher could have done a better job of production and exposition.

But if you're willing to plow through the thing, it does provide an overview of how Democrats think we can win the war. In his post today, Sullivan noted six things that he'd like to see in a Democratic plan, so I've created the handy table below to compare what he wants with what the Democrats are offering:



Redeployment within Iraq to regions where we truly can encourage democracy and prosperity, like Kurdistan.

"Ensure 2006 is a year of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty, with the Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country and with the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces."

More "soft" support for democratic movements in the Muslim world the kind of backing we gave Eastern European dissidents in the Cold War is essential, if done subtly enough not to prompt backlash.

"Eliminate terrorist breeding grounds by combating the economic, social, and political conditions that allow extremism to thrive; lead international efforts to uphold and defend human rights; and renew longstanding alliances that have advanced our national security objectives."

Encouraging the entrepreneurial Gulf states to grow in wealth and influence cannot hurt.

Nope, nothing about Bahrain in the Democratic plan.

A serious non-carbon energy policy at home is part of the mix as well.

"Achieve energy independence for America by 2020 by eliminating reliance on oil from the Middle East and other unstable regions of the world."

The credible threat of military force is also vital especially as far as Iran's regime is concerned.

"Carrots are not enough: Iran should be concerned that it has no realistic possibility of making its enrichment and reprocessing facilities operational. Accordingly, Iran should understand the existential threat of a military response under some conditions."

And a much more credible homeland defense policy.

"Screen 100% of containers and cargo bound for the U.S. in ships or airplanes at the point of origin and safeguard Americas nuclear and chemical plants, and food and water supplies...."

I'm not pretending that the Democratic plan is a precise match for what Sullivan wants to see. But it's not far off, either. And it even adds in a few other critical items, such as opposition to torture; doubling the size of Special Forces; increasing the deployable capacity of the Army by 30,000 troops; and strengthening nuclear non-proliferation and programs to secure loose nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

All of this stuff is backed up by further detail for anyone interested in learning more. It may not be perfect, but it's more of a plan than Republicans have offered; it's supported by Democrats of all stripes; and it's awfully close to the kind of thing Sullivan says he wants to see. So what's the problem?

Kevin Drum 9:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (254)

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By: Rebecca Sinderbrand

CAT BLOGGING FROM SYRIA....OK, I'll admit it: I'm not really much of a cat person. (Sorry, Kevin). They're just too hard to read, and a little too stealthy for my taste.

But war means a bit of boundary-stretching for everyone. So when my friend Lee who lived in Beirut until an emergency taxi ride across the Syrian border late last month asked me to escort his two cats from their Syrian foster home to his temporary new digs in Jerusalem, I didn't see how I could refuse; I couldn't abandon Sid (a fellow Brooklynite) or Samantha (a needy Beirut native) in their hour of need. So I loaded both cats, a half dozen bags Lee had managed to salvage from his Lebanese apartment, and a salad spinner into the backseat of a creaky Syrian taxi shortly after dawn a few days ago, and headed for the border in time for the opening of the Jordanian side. I made it to Amman by breakfast, and met up with another Israel-bound journalist for the remainder of the trip.

Now, I'm no pet psychologist, but in my considered opinion, the cat carrier may have unearthed some unpleasant refugee memories for Sid and Samantha; they did not react well to the sight of it, and vocally registered their unhappiness for a while once they found themselves inside it. It wasn't tough to see their point of view: I'd be unhappy too, if I were dragged across two international boundaries against my will, in taxis of dubious provenance, with two separate drivers chosen more for level of cat tolerance than navigating skill. But I kept the air conditioning directed at the carrier the whole trip, and the two of them settled into a sort of offended silence a few miles off the Jordanian border.

In case you're wondering how the journey went: I'm still not entirely sure the Syrians noticed I was transporting a pair of live animals out of the country and if they did, they probably wouldn't have cared in the least, or might have offered me a few more for good measure. (The Middle East may have a lot of problems, but a cat shortage isn't one of them pretty much every street corner or well-appointed outdoor cafe features a handful of the mangiest, sorriest-looking felines you've ever seen.) As for the Israeli crossing: I'm not ashamed to say I took advantage of the obvious cute factor here to ease us through. (Look, when you're responsible for bringing a pair of journalists, half a dozen Lebanese bags you didn't pack yourself, a Syrian salad spinner and a couple of Beiruti cats across Israeli land borders with less than ten minutes to spare... you do what you have to.)

So here are my feline travel companions, just a few miles from the Allenby crossing, about six hours or so into our journey. I can assure you that no cats were harmed in the production of this photo and both Sid and Samantha are currently resting comfortably in their new Jerusalem digs.

Rebecca Sinderbrand 5:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

WORST. SLIDE. EVER....There's actually nothing wrong with using PowerPoint to create presentations. That's what it's for. Still, when it's misused, the results can be pretty spectacularly bad. Apparently the United States military under Donald Rumsfeld is Exhibit A of this phenomenon. Go and be amazed.

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By: Kevin Drum

IS OUR STUDENTS LEARNING?....In the current issue of the Monthly, education expert Kevin Carey describes the abysmal lack of information currently available about whether American colleges and universities actually succeed in educating anybody. The federal government joined in the chorus today with its own report on higher education, and Kevin was at the meeting yesterday where it was approved. His report:

From Kevin Carey: The New York Times reported today on the final recommendations of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' "Commission on the Future of Higher Education." Some of the recommendations like measuring how well colleges and universities actually educate their students and reporting that information to the public will be familiar to anyone who read the Monthly's recent higher education issue. But the article fails to get across the bruising behind-the-scenes fighting that led up the final report, or the high stakes involved for future college students. Higher education has a teflon reputation among policymakers and the general public. While K-12 schools are routinely criticized as substandard, our colleges and universities enjoy an unquestioned reputation as the best in the world. But that's based almost entirely on the elite colleges and big research universities that only educate a small fraction of all students. When you look at the system as a whole, the numbers are disturbing only 37% of students who begin at four-year colleges nationwide actually graduate in four years.

Extending the timeframe to six years only brings the rate up to 63%. For black and Latino students, it's less than 50%. A recent study found that the percent of graduating seniors at four-year universities who were proficient on a test of prose literacy dropped from 40% to 31% over the last ten years. It's not a particularly hard test; the idea that anyone can get a bachelor's degree without being able to pass it, much less 69% of college seniors, is disturbing to say the least. And all this lack of learning and graduating is taking place as colleges hike tuition by double digits every year.

To their credit, the commission's leaders understood these problems and wanted to fix them. Their goal was to issue something akin to "A Nation at Risk," the seminal 1983 report that warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in K-12 schools and galvanized decades of subsequent education reform. The first draft of the report contained a lot of similar strong language, resulting in various expressions of outrage and consternation from the defenders of the higher education status quo. Most people outside of education circles don't realize that higher education has a huge lobbying apparatus here in DC, one that's far more subtle and effective than their K-12 counterparts.

The result was a final report that contains a lot of good reccomendations but has been stripped of many of its most provocative and accurate criticisms. The lone dissenter on the panel was the president of the American Council on Education (the most powerful higher education advocacy group), who said he would be "more effective" if he remained "free to contest" some aspects of the report. Translation: the higher education establishment has more work to do to neutralize the remaining controversial elements of the report and ensure that no truly meaningful changes result.

Kevin Drum 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING BACK....Rudy Giuliani on Joe Lieberman:

On this particular issue, he believes that we have to be on offense against terrorism. And I don't know why his political party won't allow him the kind of flexibility to have that viewpoint.

This nonsense needs to be fought at every turn. Democrats have to make it absolutely clear, every single time somebody spouts this rubbish, that supporting the Iraq war doesn't mean you're "on offense against terrorism." Nor does opposing the war also mean you oppose fighting jihadism. The truth is closer to the exact opposite, and chapter and verse should follow if necessary.

This needs to happen Every. Single. Time. We can't allow the Rudy Giulianis and Dick Cheneys of the world to get away with this. They've dug us into too deep a hole already, and we can't afford to let them dig it any deeper.

Kevin Drum 4:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (555)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT'S NEXT?....The Washington Post says the police investigation of the airline bombers began shortly after the London transit bombings in July 2005:

By late 2005, the probe had expanded to involve several hundred investigators on three continents.

...."It's not like three weeks ago all of a sudden MI5 knew about this plot and went to work," added a U.S. law enforcement official, speaking of the British security service. "They'd had a concern about these guys for some time for months."

....British officials suspect that as many as 50 participants and accomplices were involved, U.S. law enforcement officials said.

So British and American counterterrorism agencies have been tracking 50 al-Qaeda (or al-Qaeda-ish) terrorists for over a year. They were under intensive surveillance the entire time and never had any chance of pulling off their plans. What's more, the investigation has probably provided us with hundreds or thousands of additional leads to keep tabs on.

I wonder: what lesson will al-Qaeda draw from this? Osama bin Laden may be a religious fanatic, but he's not stupid, and my guess is that he'll conclude that in a post-9/11 security environment it's simply impossible to keep a plot this big a secret. There are too many entry points and too many ways for a single mistake to derail the whole thing.

Bin Laden may be fond of big statements, but I wonder if this failure will convince him and his compatriots to think smaller? Is our future now more likely to be full of lots of little attacks rather than the occasional big one?

Kevin Drum 3:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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By: Kevin Drum

CATALOGING THE WORLD....Via Cliopatria, I learned tonight that something called WorldCat is now available to the public. Type in the name of a book and it tells you which libraries you can find it in. Or you can search by author. Very cool.

It works, too. I typed in my father's name, and it returned his doctoral dissertation, his psychology textbook, and his biography (with my mother) of Carl Dreyer, available in 146 libraries in the United States plus a few in Egypt, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Plus I also found out that there's another Dale Drum out there, apparently some kind of economist in the midwest. Who knew?

Kevin Drum 1:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

NUTPICKING....Last night I held a contest to create a name for the moronic practice of trawling through open comment threads in order to find a few wackjobs who can be held up as evidence that liberals are nuts. It's both lazy and self-refuting, since if the best evidence of wackjobism you can find is a few anonymous nutballs commenting on a blog, then the particular brand of wackjobism you're complaining about must not be very widespread after all.

Anyway, I emailed the guy who suggested this contest and appointed him the official judge of the responses. Today he emailed back with his decision. Proposed by BlueMan, the winner is:


Hoorah for BlueMan! If I had a free t-shirt to send you, I would. As it is, all you get is your own tiny slice of immortality. For the rest of you, here are some usage examples:

I see that K Lo is busily nutpicking away over at The Corner.

Lanny Davis is now the official King of the Nutpickers.

Man, the nutpickers were out in force after Tuesday's Ned Lamont victory.

As for the law itself, Tim F. suggests "Drum's Law" instead of "Kevin's Law" because, as one of his commenters puts it, the latter "sounds like its a response to an abducted toddler."

That's fine with me. Now go out and propagate this meme!

Kevin Drum 12:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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August 10, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

SCIENCE UPDATE....Well, at least we beat Turkey. I feel so proud.

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By: Kevin Drum

JOURNALISM WATCH....Over the past few years, journalists have increasingly faced subpoenas in both criminal and civil cases that require them to turn over their unpublished material and give up their confidential sources. Josh Wolf, a freelance journalist currently in jail for refusing to turn over video outtakes to the FBI, is the latest. Dan Zoll, a producer of Washington Monthly on the Radio, talked to him from federal prison in Dublin, where he's being held, and asked if he thought this current string of cases is just a coincidence:

I think that given all of these situations one after the other, it appears that there is a campaign to undermine the rights of journalists. I mean, more and more of them are happening in recent years than weve seen in the past. Theyre also holding the reporters' balls to the fire much further. Judith Miller was in jail for 85 days. Prior to that theyd be held in contempt over the weekend and let go. It seems like an assault on the First Amendment to me, quite clearly.

Wolf shot some video of a demonstration in San Francisco last year, during which a burning mattress was slipped underneath an SFPD police car. [Note: See update below.] Federal prosecutors sidestepped California's shield law by claiming that because the SFPD receives federal funds, this was therefore a federal case. If this tissue-thin excuse is upheld, it would essentially gut every state shield law in the country. Perhaps it's time to pass a federal shield law?

In other news, a federal judge has ruled that a private citizen who disseminates classified information related to national security can be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. The judge wrote:

[B]oth common sense and the relevant precedent point persuasively to the conclusion that the government can punish those outside of the government for the unauthorized receipt and deliberate retransmission of information relating to the national defense.

Journalists, of course, are private citizens, and if this ruling is upheld it could apply to virtually anyone who writes about anything the government prefers you don't hear about. The reporters who exposed the Abu Ghraib abuses or wrote about the NSA's domestic spying program, for example, could all be prosecuted.

So while they're working on that shield law, perhaps Congress could also clarify that the Espionage Act was meant to apply to spies, not to reporters who have earned the disfavor of whoever happens to be in power at the moment. Just a thought.

UPDATE: Regarding the Josh Wolf story, Megan Books of the Grand Jury Resistance Project writes to say that although the "burning mattress" has been in news accounts, it isn't actually true. A videotape of the demonstration is here, and she says:

There was a piece of styrofoam (you can see the foam in the very beginning that the protestors are holding as signs) that was next to a firecracker. The styrofoam was smoldering from contact with the firecracker [and a police car drove over it]. I don't know when the theory about the mattress started or why, but once it got picked up, it's been everywhere. I wouldn't really even call it a "fire." That's why the whole Grand Jury is even more ridiculous. It's a fishing expedition that has no real goal.

Kevin Drum 6:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Rebecca Sinderbrand

THE TIPPING POINT....Inside his sunny office in Herzliya yesterday, Yoni Fighel of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism took a sheet of paper and started to draw a crude map of the Middle East for me. Then he started sketching lines between each nation, from theocratic Iran to client states like Syria to crumbling countries he thought likely to slide into the Iranian orbit, like Iraq (led by Iranian-sympathetic Shi'ite Nouri al-Maliki) and Lebanon (dominated by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah). He finished off his sketch by drawing in Gaza and the West Bank, ruled by Hamas; the radical Islamic group has adopted many of the most successful elements of the Hezbollah playbook.

"Now, Israel is surrounded by a sea of green," he said, referring to the color of Islam. "I call it the 'Green Bloc.' It is far, far more radical than it was ten years ago, even five years ago. With the exception of Syria, negotiation is no longer possible. We've never faced this kind of enemy before....We're seeing the domino theory of the Fertile Crescent" a chain reaction where every event in the sequence becomes more inevitable, and builds in intensity on the one before. It's the "new Middle East" the administration has been promising but it's almost as perilous for the U.S. as for Israel and Lebanon.

Why? "Everything is connected," said Fighel. The U.S.-led war in Iraq helped create this new reality, and now the Middle East has reached a tipping point. "Now we are at a critical juncture," he warned, "where we find out whether the U.S. will continue to be in a position to dictate or lead in this region, or whether the EU will be able to step in and create a counterbalance. This [current crisis] is the test case." So far, he said eyeing his map signs aren't hopeful.

Rebecca Sinderbrand 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (150)

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By: Kevin Drum

BOBO SPEAKS....Today's David Brooks column about a bipartisan McCain-Lieberman "unity party" must have been a doozy. I haven't read it myself, of course, but the reaction alone has been noteworthy. First, Bob Somerby goes after Brooks's plea for civility:

Wow! For someone so deeply in love with civility, Brooks really lets himself go in this piece! He doesnt name a single Democrat who has actually misbehaved; he doesnt explain what any Dem has done wrong. But so what? In a sweeping, name-calling indictment, he seems to say that Lamont supporters are vicious flamers who have shelved their integrity so they can engage in Sunni-Shiite politics. Theyre extremists, we are told. Their partisanship has led them to malice.

For ourselves, well only say this about that: Thank God David Brooks is in love with civility! Just think how this mornings piece might have read if hed let his own venom break loose!

Next, Jon Chait expresses some skepticism over Brooks's enthusiasm for the prospect that a McCain-Lieberman ticket would raise taxes and lower benefits:

Wait a second does David Brooks now agree that tax hikes as well as spending cuts are necessary? Funny, I can't recall him mentioning that belief a single time during the last five and a half years while Republicans have relentlessly moved in the opposite direction. Kind of odd that he's held back his view on the number one domestic policy question of the Bush presidency.

Finally, Matt Yglesias notes that on the most important issue of the day, McCain and Lieberman are the farthest thing you could imagine from "centrist":

Are there any Republicans whose national security views are clearly more hawkish than McCain's? I can't think of any. For that matter, are there any Republicans whose national security views are clearly more hawkish than Lieberman's? I can't think of any either. Of the politicians who seem to have clear convictions on the topic, these are, I think, the two leading militarists in the United States Senate.

Sounds like the column must have rocked. Too bad I couldn't read it. But I think I get the point anyway.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOWING UP AIRPLANES....Explosives expert Clifford Jones talks to the BBC about how terrorists might go about getting explosives onto a plane:

How are they made?

....There are also explosives that are made by mixing a solid and a liquid one being the oxidant and the other being the fuel. Unlike most high explosives, they do not contain the fuel and oxidant in the same molecule but they do contain them in sufficiently close contact to cause a blast.

Are the components difficult to get hold of?

No, it is very easy. Ordinary household substances could be used.

Could an explosive device be carried on to an aeroplane?

The size of a device necessary could be carried in hand baggage....They could be quite hard to detect because I do not think any of the things we have mentioned would respond to x-rays. For example, a liquid hydrocarbon fuel could pass as mineral water.

So: no more liquids allowed on planes. And short trips with just an overnight bag? Forget it. Might as well just check everything.

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By: Kevin Drum

COMMENT TRAWLING....A reader notes that the practice of trawling through open comment threads to find wackjobs who can be held up as evidence of "crazy liberals" is on the rise. Needless to say, this practice is almost self-discrediting: if the best evidence of wackjobism you can find is a few anonymous nutballs commenting on a blog, then the particular brand of wackjobism you're complaining about must not be very widespread after all. So how can we mock this practice effectively enough to make people ashamed to indulge in it?

To me the model is Godwin's Law, which in my mind has been incredibly successful at shaming people into not invoking Hitler or fascism as much as they used to. Once someone invented a phrase for that particular piece of rhetorical dishonesty, then it could be invoked over and over again as a handy slur.

So the question is: can someone invent a catchy phrase to basically mean, cherry-picking crazy comments or emails? Or, if one of your readers could find the right way to turn it into a "law," then maybe it could become "X's Law" a fitting prize for the winner.

Hmmm. "Kevin's Law" has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? It would go something like this: "If you're forced to rely on random blog commenters to make a point about the prevalence of some form or another of disagreeable behavior, you've pretty much made exactly the opposite point."

Want the law named after you instead? Come up with a better definition!

Kevin Drum 2:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (161)

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By: Kevin Drum

A HIGHER POWER....Did you know that Bush family fixer James A. Baker III is busily beavering away on a task force to figure out what to do in Iraq? It's not exactly a secret (the New York Times wrote about it here), but I sure hadn't heard about it until I read "A Higher Power," featured in our current issue:

Since March, Baker, backed by a team of experienced national-security hands, has been busily at work trying to devise a fresh set of policies to help the president chart a new course in or, perhaps, to get the hell out of Iraq. But as with all things involving James Baker, there's a deeper political agenda at work as well. "Baker is primarily motivated by his desire to avoid a war at home that things will fall apart not on the battlefield but at home. So he wants a ceasefire in American politics," a member of one of the commission's working groups told me.

Specifically, he said, if the Democrats win back one or both houses of Congress in November, they would unleash a series of investigative hearings on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and civil liberties that could fatally weaken the administration and remove the last props of political support for the war, setting the stage for a potential Republican electoral disaster in 2008. "I guess there are people in the [Republican] party, on the Hill and in the White House, who see a political train wreck coming, and they've called in Baker to try to reroute the train."

I guess if anyone can talk sense into W, maybe it's Baker. Still, this might be a tougher nut to crack than strongarming a few election monitors in Florida.

Kevin Drum 1:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

TALKING ABOUT TERRORISM....Over at Slate, Jacob Weisberg concedes that Joe Lieberman's anti-war critics had a good point about the Iraq war: it was, he says, indisputably a terrible mistake. But he's still worried:

The problem for the Democrats is that the anti-Lieberman insurgents go far beyond simply opposing Bush's faulty rationale for the war, his dishonest argumentation for it, and his incompetent execution of it. Many of them appear not to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously. They see Iraq purely as a symptom of a cynical and politicized right-wing response to Sept. 11, as opposed to a tragic misstep in a bigger conflict. Substantively, this view indicates a fundamental misapprehension of the problem of terrorism. Politically, it points the way to perpetual Democratic defeat.

Now, Lieberman's defeat was not, as Weisberg says, "about one issue and one issue only: the war in Iraq." There are plenty of other Democratic incumbents who supported the war (and continue to support the war) but have nonetheless encountered no meaningful opposition to their reelection efforts. Lieberman's sins were far deeper and more profound than merely supporting the war.

And yet, much as I'm reluctant to agree with him, Weisberg has a point: aside from kvetching about Bush's policies, the liberal blogosphere has chosen to almost unanimously sit out any substantive discussion of the fight against radical jihadism and what to do about it. Emphasis counts, and this widespread silence makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that liberal bloggers just don't find the subject very engaging.

Fair comment? Or foul? I want to be convinced I'm wrong, so let me have it with both barrels in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (322)

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August 9, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

LAMONT AND THE BLOGS....Somebody may have already pointed this out, but last night's results in Connecticut pretty much put to rest the question of whether blogs had any influence on the campaign, didn't they? After all, Lamont only won by a swing of two percentage points. Do you think blogs were responsible for swinging at least two percent of the vote? I do.

Kevin Drum 11:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

R.I.P. JOE SCHWARZ....A reader just reminded me of something that's already been noted on several other blogs, but not here: namely that three incumbents lost last night. The third was Joe Schwarz, a freshman Republican from Battle Creek, Michigan:

Schwarz was endorsed by President Bush, Dick Cheney, the Michigan Republican Party and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The NRA sent out a mailing telling district voters that it gave Schwarz an "A" rating. Newt Gingrich did a fundraiser for him.

Wait, it gets better. Schwarz is a former Navy officer and CIA agent in Laos. He is also a medical doctor who still has a practice in Battle Creek. He was a state senator for 16 years who earned a reputation for knowing his stuff on education and for saving jobs in his district.

He was swamped, 55% to 45%, by Tim Walberg, a fundamentalist preacher. Walberg also used to be a state senator, and was known for his ineffectiveness. But he had Michigan Right to Life and the Club for Growth on his side, and he called Schwarz the Dick Cheney-endorsed former CIA operative a "liberal."

I don't want to make too big a deal out of this. A congressman isn't a senator, and Schwarz had only served one term. Still, he was a moderate Republican incumbent in a moderate district and he got womped by an extreme conservative.

Of course, this kind of thing happens all the time. The Club for Growth has made a career out of ambushing moderate Republicans, as have plenty of other far-right activist groups. Two years ago they nearly defeated Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, and he had more seniority in the Senate than Lieberman.

For some reason, though, getting challenged by a shrill, single-minded interest group seems like business as usual, barely worthy of comment. Conversely, getting challenged by a broad-based coalition of bloggers and local activists with no single issue to unite them is somehow scary and new, a sign of an electoral apocalypse. Not sure why, though. If the Club for Growth doesn't scare you, why would a bunch of bloggers? Just because they use profanity a little more casually than the button-down radicals?

Kevin Drum 6:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

MITT AND THE MORMONS....Over at Crooked Timber, guest poster Matt Bishop reports that he had lunch today with a "Wall Street tycoon" who was unimpressed with the Republican presidential field. In fact, aside from John McCain, the only candidate he thought had a chance was Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But there was one problem:

The question that neither of us could answer and nor apparently could Romney is how Romneys mormon faith will play in the primaries, where the hardcore christian right holds sway. My guess, based entirely on time spent with evangelical christians in Britain, is that it will not play well at all.

Ask and ye shall receive! For the definitive take on this, check out "Mitt Romney's Evangelical Problem" from our September 2005 issue. Bottom line: it may not kill his candidacy, but it's definitely a prickly issue.

Kevin Drum 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (121)

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By: Kevin Drum

SOUTHPAWS....This is weird. According to a new study, lefties apparently aren't a besieged minority after all:

"Among the college-educated men in our sample, those who report being left-handed earn 13 percent more than those who report being right-handed," said economist Christopher S. Ruebeck of Lafayette College.

....And lefties, stay in school: Those who finished all four years of college earned, on average, a whopping 21 percent more than similarly educated right-handed men. Curiously, the researchers found no wage differential among left- and right-handed women.

So does that mean that if I were left-handed I could ask for a 21% raise and get it? What a drag. What's more, my sister, who is left handed, gets no benefit from this either. My whole family is on the short end of the stick on this one.

Kevin Drum 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Kevin Drum

A PERSONAL MOMENT WITH CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER....M.J. Rosenberg shares a Charles Krauthammer moment:

About three years ago, I saw Krauthammer flip out in synagogue on Yom Kippur. The rabbi had offered some timid endorsement of peace peace essentially on Israel's terms but peace anyway. Krauthammer went nuts. He actually started bellowing at the rabbi, from his wheel chair in the aisle. People tried to "shush" him. It was, after all, the holiest day of the year. But Krauthammer kept howling until the rabbi apologized. The man is as arrogant as he is thuggish. Who screams at the rabbi at services? For advocating peace?

Those neocon hawks are such a charming bunch, aren't they?

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (160)

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By: Kevin Drum

KAUSISM REVISITED....Mickey Kaus defended himself at length over the weekend from my charges of "fogeyism," suggesting that many of the demons of the Democratic Party from the 70s remain powerful enough that they need to be vigorously fought at every opportunity. Well, maybe so. All I can say is that the demons of the Republican Party have grown so monstrous in the past decade that it strikes me that anyone with even moderate liberal tendencies should nowadays feel a desire to spend more time criticizing Republican interest group pandering than they do Democratic interest group pandering. Way more.

Let me offer up an example. Here, Mickey denounces Democratic support of the civil service system:

Democrats may temporarily benefit when the bureaucratic sclerosis that results from these and other practices leads to government failure, as in the Katrina rescue. But as the party of "more government" Democrats should be even more concerned about reforming those practices than Republicans. That was once the point of a small magazine called The Washington Monthly.

Let's put aside the appalling suggestion that Democrats somehow contributed to the failure of FEMA you can click here, here, here, and here to see that the truth is exactly the opposite. Instead, consider Mickey's reference to the well-known views of Charlie Peters, the founding editor of the Monthly. Charlie was indeed a scourge of "bureaucratic sclerosis," and it was a centerpiece of this magazine during his tenure.

But times change. Charlie is no longer editor, but he continues to write a regular front-of-the-book monthly column for us called Tilting at Windmills, just as he's done for decades. Here's the September 2006 edition.

Notice anything? Sure, Charlie takes a couple of swipes at bureaucracy (in Washington DC) and corruption (in his home state of West Virginia). But the vast bulk of his column is sharply critical of Republicans and Republican policy. The conduct of the war gets several well-deserved takedowns. The Jack Abramoff scandal merits a couple of scalding mentions. Dick Cheney takes a hit. Tax cuts for the rich are derided. And this isn't just a coincidence: Charlie still believes in reforming the bureaucracy, but a decade ago he realized that although the Democratic Party had made a lot of progress on this score, its acceptance of change wasn't being matched by any kind of similar softening among Republicans. Just the opposite, in fact, and this realization meant that Charlie's focus changed. He is, after all, a liberal.

And this is my point. There's nothing wrong with a liberal criticizing liberal policies he finds indefensible. It's all part of the show. But the rest of us can judge writers and pundits only by what they say, not by what's in their heart of hearts. If the only thing you do is snipe at liberal policies, the only reasonable conclusion is that this represents the sum total of what you really care about. And if that's the only thing you care about even in our current era of rampant conservative extremism, Bush-inspired governmental incompetence, and Rovian dedication to ever-increasing polarization as a positive political good, it doesn't suggest a very robust commitment to liberal principles.

More here on bloggingheads.tv, where Josh Marshall defends my honor and Mickey tries to explain why he does what he does.

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

TACTICAL LASERS....Would Hezbollah even matter if it couldn't shoot rockets into Israel? After all, rhetoric aside, this is virtually the sum total of their military capability. If we could shoot down Hezbollah rockets with a mobile laser weapon, perhaps we could afford to let them rant vainly away and otherwise ignore them.

Well, it turns out we don't have the technology to do that reliably. But we're closer than I would have thought, and Bill Arkin has an interesting and richly detailed account today of the bureaucratic turf fighting that's prevented serious funding of just such a system. There's nothing especially partisan here (the program bumbled along under both the Clinton and Bush administrations), but it's a good example of our unwillingness, even five years after 9/11, to refocus our attention from gigantic strategic weapons onto smaller, less sexy projects that are far more likely to be of use in the low-intensity, asymmetric battlefields of the future. It's worth reading.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT'S NEXT FOR LIEBERMAN....Taegan Goddard got a copy of the Connecticut exit poll and posted a few of the results. Here's the most interesting one:

61% of voters rejected the notion of Lieberman running as an Independent candidate in the fall, something he has promised to do. 39% supported it. Moreover, one in five Lieberman voters does not think he should seek an Independent run in November.

Basically, then, all of Lamont's supporters think Lieberman should stand down hardly a surprising opinion and 20% of Lieberman's own supporters think he should stand down. Presumably, this means that 80% of Lieberman's supporters still support him and plan to vote for him as an independent in November. If a substantial portion of Republican voters split their tickets and vote for him as well, he could beat Lamont.

That's the conventional wisdom anyway, but I don't think that's how it will play out. The party apparatus is going to fall in line strongly behind Lamont (Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer lost no time in announcing their support this morning) and this will persuade some of Lieberman's loyalist Dem supporters to switch sides. In addition, Lieberman himself is likely to become ever more shrill as time goes by, alienating some of his less dedicated followers. And Lamont himself, no longer stuck in a 2-way battle with Lieberman, is free to moderate his message and peel off some further Lieberman votes.

Basically, Lamont has the support of about 60% of Connecticut's Democrats already, and it won't be long before that's up to 70% or more. That's more than enough to win, and unless Lieberman is even less tethered to reality than it seems, he'll figure this out pretty soon and bow out.

I hope he does, anyway. At this point, there's nothing more he can do except hurt the party. He'll find himself with precious little love from his former friends if he goes down that road too long.

Kevin Drum 11:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (137)

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIMARY COLORS....I suppose it may already be too late for this, but when the punditocracy starts chattering about how Ned Lamont's victory in Connecticut is a sign that the Democratic Party is diving headlong over some kind of wild-eyed lefty peacenik cliff, I hope they keep in mind that Hank Johnson also won a landslide victory over Cynthia McKinney down in Georgia.

As a result, the Democratic voters in Connecticut, who believe that the war in Iraq is hurting the broader war against radical jihadism, now have a Senate candidate who agrees with them. Likewise, the Democratic voters of DeKalb County, who want a representative who spends more time on district business than on investigating weird conspiracy theories, now have a congressional candidate who promises to do just that.

Seems to me the party acquitted itself pretty well tonight.

Kevin Drum 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (305)

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August 8, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PRIMARY COVERAGE....I'm not planning to blog today's primaries too obsessively, but my guess is that Firedoglake is the go to site for Lieberman-Lamont blogging while Dignan's 75 Year Plan is handling the honors for the McKinney-Johnson race down in Georgia.

For official results, your best bet is probably the Hartford Courant for the Connecticut race and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the Georgia race. Enjoy.

UPDATE (10:45 EDT): Lamont leads Lieberman 52%-48% with 87% of precincts reporting. Lieberman would have to receive 60% of the remaining votes to win.

Johnson leads McKinney 58%-42% with 67% of precincts reporting. McKinney would have to receive 67% of the remaining votes to win.

UPDATE (11:05 EDT): Lieberman has conceded. Ned Lamont is the Democratic candidate for senator from Connecticut.

McKinney appears to be about 9,000 votes behind with 8,000 votes left to be counted. Hank Johnson is the Democratic candidate for congress from DeKalb County, Georgia.

Kevin Drum 9:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (132)

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By: Kevin Drum

USE OF FORCE....The latest from Lebanon:

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that Israel would "examine" the Lebanese government's proposal to deploy 15,000 soldiers to south Lebanon to replace Hezbollah militias. He called the idea "an interesting step that we need to examine and investigate and see if it's all that it means."

Readers more hawkish than me sometimes wonder what it would take to convince me that conventional war is an effective tool even against a guerrilla force in the Middle East. Well, suppose this proposal pans out and we end up with a sequence of events something like this:

  1. Israel launches massive assault on Lebanon.

  2. Lebanese government eventually sues for peace and offers to send its army to the border.

  3. Over a period of months the Israeli army hands off control of southern Lebanon to the Lebanese army and withdraws.

  4. Hezbollah isn't destroyed, but the Lebanese army manages to keep control of the border and maintain relative peace. Over time their control increases and Hezbollah's influence decreases.

I don't expect this to happen, but if it did it would mean that in this case I was wrong and the hawks were right and I would have to reexamine my broader worldview about when and where the use of force is effective.

But how about the reverse? I wonder what sequence of events would cause the hawks to reassess their assumptions?

Kevin Drum 4:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (276)

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By: Kevin Drum

TWO POLS BUT NO POLLS?....This Lieberman-Lamont thing is a bust. Where are the leaks of the early exit polls so we can all make half-ass predictions and then get roundly denounced for them by the more responsible members of the mainstream media? I mean, where's the fun without that?

Kevin Drum 3:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

ISRAEL'S OPTIONS....Daniel Goldhagen writes in the LA Times today that Israel has only a limited number of strategies for dealing with a mortal enemy like Hezbollah. Here's a summary:

  1. Deterrence. Won't work because Hezbollah doesn't care if Lebanon gets bombed.

  2. Genuine peace. Impossible because Hezbollah will never agree.

  3. Conventional war. Not effective against a guerrilla army.

  4. Put up with the status quo. Intolerable because Hezbollah's attacks will only escalate.

  5. War with Syria and Iran. Bingo.

(Note: this is how Goldhagen numbered them. I'm not sure what happened to option #1.)

When you put it like that, a massive regional war almost sounds reasonable. But how about if we analyze it like this instead?

  1. Deterrence. Complete deterrence is impossible, but sharp and limited attacks do indeed have a partial deterrent effect even on groups like Hezbollah.

  2. Genuine peace. Certainly not anytime soon. However, Lebanon has been making slow but genuine progress for the past few years, and another decade spent on strengthening civil institutions there could weaken Hezbollah's influence and capabilities and put in place a Lebanese government that truly has control over its own territory.

  3. Conventional war. It's true that conventional war has a poor track record against guerrillas. But see #2.

  4. Put up with the status quo. Hezbollah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers was unquestionably an isolated escalation of violence along the Israel-Lebanon border. But it's much less clear that Hezbollah has either the intent or the capability to initiate a broader escalation, and in any case Israel has the means to retaliate if Hezbollah tries it. Given the results of the current war, the 2000-2006 status quo might not look all that bad a year or two from now.

  5. War with Syria and Iran. Let's think twice about this, shall we?

Israel tried occupying Lebanon for 18 years and it didn't solve anything. In fact, it made things worse. But if you're willing to try war for 18 years, why give up on a better strategy after only three or four? Sure, Israel should retaliate against Hezbollah's rocket attacks and destroy what infrastructure they can, but beyond that wouldn't it be wiser for the U.S. and Israel to retain the support of surrounding Arab countries by helping to steadily strengthen Lebanese civil society and the Lebanese government until it gets to the point where it can control Hezbollah?

Yes, this might easily take another decade. And yes, it might not work. But while it may be comforting to think that a massive military assault would work better, recent history suggests this is naive. Sometimes the only answer is the slow and agonizingly frustrating one.

Kevin Drum 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (123)

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By: Kevin Drum

BODY LANGUAGE....Tyler Cowen sez:

By the way, when I lie in bed I find I have completely different thoughts depending on whether I am on my side or on my back.

This really deserves further explication, doesn't it? What kind of thoughts does he have in those positions?

Hopefully this isn't related to what he's doing when he's in different positions, which would be fairly trivial. When I'm on my side I'm more likely to be watching TV or talking to Marian, for example, but when I'm on my back I'm usually reading. So: different kinds of thoughts. But is that what Tyler is talking about? Or does the mere change of position itself inspire different thinking?

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PARTY OF BIG IDEAS....It looks like the Republican Party has a brand new strategy for 2006! It's outlined in a memo sent to Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman from pollster Fred Steeper:

The memo suggested that Republicans could motivate their base in the upcoming elections by talking about foreign threats and national security issues, including Iraq and the potential nuclear threat from Iran, and by drawing contrasts with Democrats in those areas. It said "a huge 87% of the base expresses extremely strong feelings" about national security issues.

....Mehlman, in an interview Monday, said the GOP survey demonstrated that the base became motivated when it heard that Democrats supported policies of "isolationism and defeatism," words that the GOP had attached to Democratic proposals to withdraw troops in Iraq.

Painting Democrats as appeasing wimps? That's fresh, innovative thinking for you!

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (100)

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By: Kevin Drum

YES, LANNY, THE WORLD IS FULL OF CRACKPOTS....I'm sure the Wall Street Journal was delighted to run a piece by Lanny Davis, Bill Clinton's former special counsel, informing its readers that he's recently discovered that "The far right does not have a monopoly on bigotry and hatred and sanctimony." It ought to be good for years of quote mining by the Journal's crack staff of editorial writers.

And what is Davis's evidence? It's that old standby: noticing that crackpots often leave crackpotty comments on blogs and that those same people often write crackpotty email in ALL CAPS. This is news? Frankly, if that's how deep Davis had to dig to find people saying nasty things about Joe Lieberman, the 2006 Connecticut primary must be a remarkably civil affair.

Comparing this kind of nearly anonymous ranting to Rush Limbaugh (audience: in the millions) and Ann Coulter (audience: in the millions) is the work of a useful idiot, and I'm sure the Journal editors were cackling in their beers when they received it. But still, since he insists, here it is: I denounce all crackpots everywhere. Happy, Lanny?

Kevin Drum 11:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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August 7, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

IS ROBERT KAGAN NUTS?....Robert Kagan writes today that Joe Lieberman isn't a marked man because he supported the Iraq war four years ago, he's a marked man because he's stuck to his guns since then:

He didn't say he was wrong. He didn't turn on his former allies and condemn them. He didn't claim to be the victim of a hoax. He didn't try to pretend that he never supported the war in the first place. He didn't claim to be led into support for the war by a group of writers and intellectuals whom he can now denounce. He didn't go through a public show of agonizing and phony soul-baring and apologizing in the hopes of resuscitating his reputation, as have some noted "public intellectuals."

These have been the chosen tactics of self-preservation ever since events in Iraq started to go badly and the war became unpopular....Apparently, amazingly, dispiritingly, it all works. At least in the short run, dishonesty pays. Dissembling pays.

Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias both take this to mean that Kagan thinks there's something dishonest about changing your views when faced with changing facts on the ground. This would indeed be a bizarre opinion to hold, but I think Kagan is actually saying something different: he's saying that in this particular case he believes that most of the Democrats who have recanted their support of the war have done so merely to save their political skins. They don't really regret their vote, they just know which way the winds are blowing.

If my read is right, this is hardly an unusual critique. (When a politician performs a policy U-turn, do you normally think it's the result of some deep and profound soul searching, or do you assume it's more likely the result of pressure from interest groups or an examination of the latest polls? The latter, right?) Still, ordinary though it may be, what makes Kagan's accusation interesting is that it jibes with a fairly common lefty critique of the Democratic Party that goes something like this: "Sure, they're opposed to the Iraq war now, but what will they do when the next war comes around?" How germane would such a question be if you believed that all these Dem politicians had undergone a genuine change of heart?

Actually, as Matt points out, the more peculiar thing about Kagan's column is the underlying assumption that you can't be considered reliable on national security issues unless you've supported every single war that's ever been proposed. In fact, this view seems to pretty much underly the entire conservative project these days. Matt has a good post about it here.

Kevin Drum 7:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (142)

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By: Zachary Roth

THE IMPEACHMENT PLOY...Over the last few months, we've seen a number of signs that Republicans and their supporters are getting increasingly desperate over their prospects for November: pushing a flag-burning amendment, demagoguing on immigration, vilifying gays, etc. This morning brought the latest indication: In National Review online, Byron York uses a recent report by Democratic Rep. John Conyers on the Bush administration's Iraq coverups to argue that a Democratic House means only one thing -- impeachment.

Don't blame York -- he's only following the RNC talking points. As we noted in our June issue:

GOP leaders are now exploiting voters' fears of endless partisan investigationsfears that they themselves created with their own behavior in the '90sto caution with faux solemnity that Democrats, if given control of one or both houses of Congress, would impeach the president and plunge the nation into turmoil. In a recent fundraising email, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman warned that Democrats "will censure and impeach the President if they win back Congress."

So, would Conyers -- who would be Judiciary committee chair in a Dem-controlled House -- move to impeach Bush? I have no idea, and neither does York (though a statement from Nancy Pelosi's office that impeachment is "off the table" seems to carry more weight than Conyers's assessment that "there's no way I can predict whether there will ultimately be an impeachment proceeding underway or not," given that Pelosi is, you know, the leader.)

But here's the larger point: Over the last 5 and a half years, the Republican Congress has broken with history by almost completely abdicating its constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight of the Bush administration, despite ample material to look into. A Democratic House, with veteran committee chairs like Conyers, John Dingell, and Henry Waxman, would provide the thorough accounting of the last 6 disastrous years -- from Iraq, to Medicare, to Abramoff to Katrina -- that the White House and its allies most fear. By raising the specter of impeachment, Republicans hope to scare Democrats away from using the Bush administration's record of failure and corruption as a campaign issue, and from holding the administration to account should they win back Congress.

Luckily, Conyers and his colleagues so far don't seem like they're spooked by this ploy, and good for them.

Zachary Roth 5:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (130)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMS AND THE WAR....Mark Schmitt is skeptical of the common notion that, just as it did during the Vietnam war, opposition to the Iraq war will hurt Democrats at the polls:

Im really tired of the Vietnam/Democrats analogy, in which the entire political history of Vietnam is reduced to McGoverns loss in 1972. The real reason the Vietnam War divided and discredited Democrats and splintered the liberal consensus was because lets not be afraid to admit it Democrats started that war....The national security gap for Democrats first appeared in polls in 1967-68, because LBJ was held responsible for the war itself, not because they were associated with antiwar activists.

I think I'd be careful here. It's true that it's hard to blame the Democrats' woes in the late 70s and 80s solely on national security concerns. There were plenty of other issues in play too, most obvious among them a poor economy, the rise of identity politics, and the slow decline of the FDR coalition.

At the same time, the loss of Vietnam, followed by America's humiliation in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, were unquestionably part of the Reagan resurgence too. It's not as if this is just a myth made up by later generations of Gipper enthusiasts. Standing up to the Evil Empire really was a big part of his appeal, even if most people at the time said they believed the Soviets were no longer the legendary bogeyman of the 50s and 60s.

Similarly, recent polls on Iraq display an enormous range of opinion, including widely divergent responses to very similar questions. My take is that this represents both considerable angst on the part of the American public as well as a fair amount of cognitive dissonance: they've largely given up on the Iraq war itself, but they're nonetheless reluctant to admit defeat.

This is hardly an unusual situation, and people often deal with it by shooting the messenger. They may say we ought to withdraw from Iraq, but for many of them that opinion is only an inch deep. What they're really looking for is someone to buck them up and convince them that if only we show enough strength we'll prevail anyway.

This is why the Democratic response to Iraq is so important. "Withdraw from Iraq" may be popular, but it's very unlikely that this means the American public is ready to support a broadly dovish foreign policy. At least, it never has in the past.

But there's an alternative: persuading the American public that there's a different and more effective way to fight radical jihadism, one that relies more on economic engagement and public diplomacy and less on mid-20th century notions of fighting wars against uniformed armies. Unfortunately, most Dems don't know how to do this, and their prescriptions end up sounding mushy and unconvincing. In fact, they often sound like they don't really believe their own rhetoric.

I know it's easy to say and harder to do, but: for the good of the country and the good of the party, someone better figure out how to do this. My guess is that the messengers of withdrawal from Iraq will end up getting shot (or at least winged) unless they pair up that message with a truly persuasive and inspiring plan for fighting the overall war in a better and more winnable way. The first Dem to do this is the frontrunner for 2008.

For a start on this, see Wes Clark's "Broken Engagement" from our May 2004 issue. He lays out a lot of the main themes.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (210)

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By: Kevin Drum

2nd ANNUAL COLLEGE RANKINGS....The Washington Monthly's Second Annual College Rankings are now out, and just like last year our goal was to go beyond figuring out which universities have the highest average SAT scores and the richest alumni:

Isn't it just as important for taxpayers to know whether their money in the form of billions of dollars in research grants and student aid is being put to good use?

....And so, to put The Washington Monthly College Rankings together, we started with a different assumption about what constitutes the "best" schools. We asked ourselves: What are reasonable indicators of how much a school is benefiting the country? We came up with three: how well it performs as an engine of social mobility (ideally helping the poor to get rich rather than the very rich to get very, very rich), how well it does in fostering scientific and humanistic research, and how well it promotes an ethic of service to country.

You can see the complete package here. This year's top-rated national university was MIT and the top-rated liberal arts college was Bryn Mawr.

But I wanted more. I wanted to add some value of my own. So I used the raw data from our report to create the "Striver Index," those schools that made the biggest jump from their U.S. News & World Report ranking to their Washington Monthly ranking. The winner was UC Riverside, which jumped an amazing 63 spots, moving from #85 on the U.S. News chart to #22 on ours. Congrats! The rest of the top ten strivers are listed below.

Kevin Drum 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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August 6, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE PERCEPTION OF POWER....If Ned Lamont beats Joe Lieberman in Tuesday's Connecticut primary, will it mean that blogs have truly broken into the big time? Publius comments:

My thoughts if Joe goes down this week, I dont think that blogs will have had all that much to do with it....But, because people like [Marshall] Wittman, TNR, and even the Lieberman campaign have harped on about those crazy bloggers throughout the campaign, they are inflating the power of blogs in peoples minds. And as a result, a Lamont victory will create a perception that blogs are far more important than they are (particularly among party insider types who do keep up with blogs).

That sounds about right to me. We're in an odd situation where bloggers like Atrios and Kos are trying to downplay the influence of blogs while mainstream pundits are trying to exaggerate it. Both sides have their reasons, but the end result is that the underlying reality doesn't matter much anymore. In the same way that all the chatter about "who won" a presidential debate is more important than the debates themselves, the chatter about the power of the blogs is probably more important than whether they really had any power to begin with. Like it or not, they do now.

Kevin Drum 7:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN'S MOTIVES....More noodling on Lebanon. Here's an interview in Newsweek with Israel's vice prime minister, Shimon Peres, about Hezbollah's attack on Israel and Israel's response:

Did the Iranians order this?
They are behind it. [Javier] Solana [secretary-general of the European Union] visited Tehran on July 11 and got a totally negative response [on restraining their nuclear program], and Hizbullah struck [Israel] on the 12th of July.

I have a question here. Peres himself doesn't speculate on Iran's motives, but the conventional wisdom at this point seems to be that the Iranians ordered Hezbollah's attack in order to divert everyone's attention from their nuclear program. But this doesn't make sense even if Iran's leadership is stocked to the rafters with morons. In what way would ordering their known proxy to start a war with Israel divert everyone's attention from the fact that Iran is a dangerous regional player and would likely become even more dangerous if it had nuclear weapons? Surely it would accomplish exactly the opposite?

A second theory holds that Hezbollah's attack was a shot across the bow, Iran's way of showing that if the pressure on its nuclear program continues it has ways of fighting back. This makes more sense, but seems to have less traction among the punditocracy than the "diversion" theory.

Is there a third theory?

UPDATE: I was focused here solely on the conventional wisdom that Iran ordered (or approved or went along with) Hezbollah's attacks, but Greg Sargent adds an obvious alternative: namely that Iran wasn't behind Hezbollah's attacks in the first place. Obviously nobody knows for sure, but Greg points to a New York Times piece on Saturday suggesting that U.S. intelligence has found "little evidence that the Hezbollah raid...was ordered by Tehran, or that Iran is directly coordinating the steady attacks on Israeli targets." Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (179)

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By: Kevin Drum

PET PEEVES....Here's the latest in an occasional series of new (or newly annoying) pet peeves:

  • Pfizer's new web-based Viagra ad. In a fit of insane cleverness, Pfizer's marketing wizards decided to make it more convenient for viewers to turn on the ad's sound. Instead of having to click an icon, you just have to roll your mouse over the ad! Do you know many times their ad suddenly started blaring out of my speakers before I figured out what was going on? Morons.

  • Increasingly long DVD intros. Message to Hollywood: if I rent a DVD to watch in my own home, I don't want to watch your ads. Disabling the fast forward and skip buttons does nothing except piss me off and make me less likely to rent future movies. Knock it off.

    And while you're at it, can you fire the artistes who create the cute animations that play before the main menu appears? They aren't that cute. Just let me watch the damn movie, OK?

  • Michael Mann. Was there a single cliche he left untouched in Miami Vice? Was there a single character who actually acted like a real human being or had a believable relationship with a fellow human being? Was there a single line of true dialog? Yeesh. (And seriously: "one of the greatest gun battles I've ever seen on film"? Dude. Please.)

This is now an open thread for random (but essentially trivial) griping. Nothing about world peace or the Connecticut primary. Let's keep it unserious, please.

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (194)

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August 5, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

ISRAEL AND LEBANON....The conventional wisdom about Israel's campaign in Lebanon is that it's been a strategic failure. They went in assuming they could substantially destroy Hezbollah's military capability with an air campaign, and when that failed they were forced into a costly ground campaign followed by a belated realization that they were trapped in southern Lebanon again unless they could somehow convince a multinational force to take their place.

Jeff Weintraub thinks the conventional wisdom is wrong:

Unlike the situation in previous conflicts, it seems clear that this time around the Israeli government did not believe that Israel could achieve a solution by itself, nor that a solution to the threat posed by Hezbollah could be achieved solely by military force.

Instead, it looks increasingly apparent that a prime Israeli goal was to provoke a multilateral diplomatic and political intervention by the so-called "international community"....It also seems clear that the Israeli & US governments have been roughly in accord on this strategy and, more surprisingly, that the major European governments have signed on to its broad outlines.

....All the commentary that has misunderstood or ignored these connections between the military, diplomatic, and political dimensions of the situation which is to say, most of the commentary in news reports, punditry, and the blogosphere has largely missed the point of what is going on.

In other words, Israel's current miserable situation was actually part of the plan all along. After years of watching Hezbollah build up its border forces, the Israelis finally decided that the only lasting solution required both the diplomatic involvement of the international community as well as a multinational force in southern Lebanon, and they figured the only way to make this happen was to conduct a major assault that would spur the international community into action.

This is a "two cushion bank shot" explanation of Israel's otherwise perplexing actions, and I've noted before that I find such theories generally unconvincing. What's more, I don't see any evidence to persuade me that it applies in this specific case. I asked Jeff about this and he offered some clarification via email:

Do we have any good reason to believe that this was not the idea from the beginning? To conclude that, we have to assume (a) that the Israeli government believed that the Lebanese government would be able and willing to crush Hezbollah by itself, without outside involvement, and (b) that even if Israel managed to knock out a large portion of Hezbollah's 10,000+ Iranian missiles, Iran & Syria wouldn't simply replace them in the absence of some larger political & diplomatic solution. Governments do a lot of stupid things, based on a lot of stupid assumptions, but is it likely that in this case the Israeli government was being that stupid? Unlikely. That requires a more implausible story-line than the one I propose.

Unfortunately, there's still no evidence here, and there are reasons to believe this storyline is wrong. The Israeli security cabinet has been leaking like a sieve during the war the local press practically seems to have minutes of their meetings and no one in Jerusalem has reported anything that supports this theory. On the contrary, all the reporting seems to support the idea that, in this case, a cigar is just a cigar: Hezbollah screwed up by not anticipating the Israeli reaction to their July 12 kidnappings, and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz really did believe that air power would be sufficient to finish the Israeli counterattack. The Israelis were genuinely reluctant to start a ground offensive, and are conducting one now only because they ran out of options when the air attack failed.

(NB: Jeff points to a single New York Times article here that supports his theory that Israel wanted a multinational force in Lebanon all along, but it was published 12 days after the war began and seems to me to be a reaction to the dawning failure of the air war, not evidence that this was Israel's original goal.)

But here's the thing: I don't read everything that's printed and I might have missed something that supports Jeff's theory. So I'm throwing this out for discussion. Has anyone read anything that suggests Israel was trying to provoke an international intervention from the very beginning? Or is a cigar just a cigar?

Kevin Drum 9:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (149)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI MEDIA....Major Joseph Cox, in a recently released monograph examining information operations during the Iraq war, says this:

A lack of media outlets in the divisions areas limited the divisions ability to reach their populace quickly and efficiently. The divisions set out to create media in the areas of responsibility....By the end of 2003, every Division had created a number of newspapers, radios and TV stations....As individual Iraqi media outlets became functional, primarily with PSYOP support, tactical PSYOP units would use those fledgling outlets to support their product dissemination.

Marc Lynch thinks there's more here than meets the eye:

Is there any way to read this other than that some significant portion of the Iraqi media which emerged after Saddam's fall was in fact a fully funded and operational Psychological Operations campaign? If that's the case, then this would seem to quite a revelation. Which newspapers, radios and TV stations were actually PSYOP operations, one might want to know. While I'd imagine that most enterprising journalists are either in Lebanon or on vacation, this still might be worth somebody following up on.

Hmmm. Are there any enterprising journalists out there interested in checking up on this?

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

RAT, MEET SHIP....Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts yes, that Pat Roberts is upset at the White House over its shocking unwillingness to share information with Congress. Gary Farber has the details.

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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August 4, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

REAL GENIUS....Over at Seed, this week's "Ask a ScienceBlogger" question is:

What movie do you think does something admirable (though not necessarily accurate) regarding science? Bonus points for answering whether the chosen movie is any good generally....

My off-the-cuff answer was Real Genius, but when I clicked the link over at Chad Orzel's blog to see a serious answer from an actual PhD-certified scientist, it turned out to be....Real Genius.

Now, it probably made a difference that I turned on the TV last night and Comedy Central happened to be showing Real Genius, which I then spent a couple of hours watching for the seventh or eighth time. But still, Chad is right. The actual science may be crap (it's a comedy, after all), but it really does capture (in exaggerated comic form) the true nature of geekdom. I don't quite know how Martha Coolidge managed it, but she did.

And for some reason, last night's viewing was the first time I noticed William Atherton's line to Val Kilmer as he passes out blue books: "Take one and pass the rest back, just like you had a normal IQ." The delivery was perfect.

Kevin Drum 7:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

INFINITE FOOLISHNESS....One of the favorite games played by Social Security doom mongers is the "infinite horizon" projection. The goal of the game is to create a bloodcurdling estimate of Social Security's liabilities by calculating a net present value of all possible future shortfalls and adding them up. The number they come up with is usually somewhere north of the GDP of the western hemisphere.

The whole thing is a ridiculous way of looking at government expenditures, and if you want a good example of just how ridiculous it is go read this short post by Max Sawicky. It's simple enough that even an NRO economist can follow it.

Kevin Drum 6:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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By: Rebecca Sinderbrand

TALKING TO SYRIA....There are still plenty of nay-sayers, but the chorus calling for Syrian involvement in crafting a Lebanon ceasefire solution now includes Richard Armitage, Warren Christopher, and Mr. Flat World himself, Tom Friedman.

The idea isn't limited to diplomacy's backseat drivers. With the notable exception of France (which is trying to seduce Syria's closest ally, Iran), most EU governments believe the path to peace runs through Damascus. In the same way that the U.S. is the only party that can influence Israel to stop the bombing, they say, then like it or not, Syria is the only actor with the clout and the willingness to do the same on the other side. European and Arab ministers have been shuttling in and out of Damascus for days now. The Spanish foreign minister met with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad yesterday, and his German counterpart who spent several days chatting up officials here has already laid out the outlines of a deal that could simultaneously end the current conflict, get Syria out of the diplomatic doghouse, and pry it loose from the Iranian death grip.

For their part, the Syrians say they're ready to play ball. Officials I've spoken with here in Damascus say the regime is ready to help convince Hezbollah to sign on to an immediate ceasefire and enter sincere prisoner exchange negotiations that could return the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. They'd also like to return to talks with Israel over a permanent land-for-peace deal. It's far from a perfect plan there's plenty here that won't play particularly well in Washington or Jerusalem but it's a decent starting point. Even a growing cadre of Israeli analysts seem to think that now is the moment to draw Syria out of the international isolation it's endured since the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri last year.

But Washington doesn't want any help from Damascus not until the regime fulfills an array of demands (ranging from an Iraq-related wish list to an immediate and public sea change in its chummy relationship with Hezbollah). But not even the regime's most die-hard opponents think their actions one way or the other will make much difference in Iraq. And even if they wanted to rein in Hezbollah, says Syrian journalist Sami Moubayed, there's no way any Arab leader could make the sort of statements or take the sort of action Washington is looking for. Take a quick stroll around Damascus these days with its swarm of Nasrallah posters and yellow-and-green Hezbollah banners and you start to see a bit of what he's talking about. "The Americans are unable to accept the fact that some things are not under anyone's control, cannot be under their control," he says. "The Arab street is behind Hezbollah right now. When Hassan Nasrallah is talking, people are listening."

Syrian officials say they've made too many compromises including unacknowledged Iraq assistance already. "We have a saying here in Syria we have 'nose.' Do you know what that means?" Information Minister Mohsen Bilal asked me the other day. "It means we have pride, so that we walk with our faces up, like this" he jutted out his chin. "We have tried to work with the Americans. We have tried to talk to them. Our help isn't good enough for them." He leaned back in his chair. "If they want to speak now, they will have to come to us."

It looks like Bilal may be waiting a while. The U.S. embassy here in Damascus remains open, but hasn't been staffed with a permanent ambassador or senior-level diplomats for months. And the Syrian capital long a major stop on the Mideast peacemaking circuit was never under consideration for Condoleezza Rice's recent itinerary. Meanwhile, Syria's ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha (you can see his blog here) is still communicating with the White House the only way he can: via forlorn op-eds, like the one that appears in today's LA Times. (Moustapha has been called the "loneliest ambassador in Washington": he's there in case the administration ever decides to talk; so far, U.S. officials remain under strict orders not to speak with him.) "Whether President Bush likes it or not, Syria is a regional power. And Syria will remain a regional power," Moubayed told me a few days ago. "This conflict can't be resolved without its help." The rest of the world seems to be coming around to his point of view. But for the U.S. as the crisis enters its fourth week the "Syrian option" is still off the table.

Rebecca Sinderbrand 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD....First David Broder, now Tom Friedman? Since I don't subscribe to TimesSelect and couldn't read his full column today, I was skeptical of blog reports that Friedman had finally decided that we need to withdraw from Iraq. But curiosity got the better of me and I checked out his column on Nexis. Sure enough, he thinks it's time to leave:

When our top commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, tells a Senate Committee, as he did yesterday, that ''the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it,'' it means that three years of efforts to democratize Iraq are not working. That means ''staying the course'' is pointless, and it's time to start thinking about Plan B how we might disengage with the least damage possible.

....The administration now has to admit what anyone including myself who believed in the importance of getting Iraq right has to admit: Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it is not happening, and we can't throw more good lives after good lives.

.... Yes, the best way to contain Iran would have been to produce a real Shiite-led democracy in Iraq, exposing the phony one in Tehran. But second best is leaving Iraq. Because the worst option the one Iran loves is for us to stay in Iraq, bleeding, and in easy range to be hit by Iran if we strike its nukes.

Friedman does hedge a bit by saying that we first need to try a gigantic "last-ditch" peace conference, but adds that there's no way such a conference can happen unless we first declare our firm intention to leave. So, really, there's not too much weaseling here. He's reluctant about it, but he's definitely changed his tune. He wants out.

Maybe I'm just a wild optimist about these things, but I think Broder and Friedman are bellwethers. They're both cautious, centrist, establishment liberals who have long hoped for success in Iraq, and they've both given up. Put them together with guys like George Will and Chuck Hagel on the right, and there's just not much support left for staying in Iraq outside of the neocon crazies and the rabid partisans. The wind is definitely shifting.

And as long as I'm being a wild optimist: if we finally develop a consensus that invading random Arab countries doesn't work so well at putting an end to support for radical jihadism, maybe we can start seriously thinking about what would work. Considering how phenomenally difficult the problem is, the sooner we put Iraq behind us and get our brightest minds thinking seriously about nonmilitary solutions, the better off we'll be.

UPDATE: Billmon, on the other hand, is depressed:

I think we've run out of time. Events from 9/11 on have moved too fast and pushed us too far towards the clash of civilizations that most sane people dread but the neocons desperately want. The Dems are now just the cadet branch of the War Party. While the party nomenklatura is finally, after three bloody years, making dovish noises about the Iraq fiasco, I think their loyalty to Israel will almost certainly snap them back into line during the coming "debate" over war with Iran.

Read the whole thing to see what he's talking about, but I think there's a broad point here that's certainly correct: It's one thing to finally realize that the Iraq war was a mistake, but does that mean these guys are going to oppose the next Middle East adventure once the agitprop starts flowing? Good question.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (137)

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By: Kevin Drum

CLEAN MONEY...There was some good news for California Democrats today:

Defying some of his strongest supporters in the race for governor, state Treasurer Phil Angelides on Thursday threw his support behind a November initiative that would use taxpayer money to fund campaigns and would markedly restrict political donations to candidates.

....Big corporate donors and major unions such as the California Teachers Assn., one of Angelides' biggest backers oppose the campaign finance overhaul.

....But [Angelides] characterized Proposition 89 as nothing less than protecting democracy and creating a system "where it's not how much money you can raise, but the power of your ideas."

"It has become a dialing-for-dollars democracy, with the unjust influence of the special interests silencing the voices of Californians," Angelides said at a rally at the nurses union headquarters in Oakland.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, unsurprisingly, opposes the measure. Too European, he says. Plus it raises taxes by 0.2%.

Well, I think I can put up with that. The California initiative is based on the Arizona model, which has been pretty successful. Basically, if you gather a sufficient number of $5 contributions, you qualify for public financing. If your opponent decides to forego public financing and raises more money than you, the state matches it. Private financing is thus still legal, but there's not much point to it.

Marc Cooper had me all depressed about the possibility of Angelides endorsing the initiative back when it qualified, but now I'm slightly encouraged. It's still an uphill battle to get it passed, but at least the odds have improved.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

BACK TO THE FUTURE....The Israeli security cabinet hasn't approved this yet, but it now seems likely that Israel will end up the current war by occupying an even greater portion of Lebanon than it did after its 1982 invasion:

Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Israel Defense Forces officials on Thursday evening to begin preparing for the next stage of the military offensive in south Lebanon, which would extend the IDF's control to all Lebanese territory south of the Litani River.

....Such an operation would extend Israel's control past the security zone it held until the withdrawal of its troops in May 2000.

Laura Rozen posts the following comment:

From a colleague covering the conflict in Israel: "Almost everyone I talk to here is now saying the Iraq war has presented one of the most significant threats to Israel in its history." Namely because it has so empowered Iran, and reduced US ability to deal with Iran now.

And of course there was this assessment of Iraq's future on Thursday from General John Abizaid:

The commander of American forces in the Middle East bluntly warned a Senate committee on Thursday that sectarian violence in Iraq, especially in the capital, Baghdad, had grown so severe that the nation could slide toward civil war.

....The tone of the testimony at the Armed Services Committees three-and-a-half-hour hearing was strikingly grimmer than the Pentagons previous assessments.

....The security situation in Iraq was described in even starker terms by a senior British diplomat in Baghdad, according to British news reports. He contradicted the official stance in London and Washington by concluding that Iraq was closer to civil war and partition than to democracy.

So to summarize: The invasion of Iraq has failed to create a stable state, let alone a democracy. Instead, it has produced chaos and civil war, strengthened Iran, and endangered Israel. In turn, Israel's war in Lebanon has failed in its goal of significantly weakening Hezbollah. Instead, it has turned Hassan Nasrallah into a regional folk hero and is about to end in a rerun of the disastrous occupation that created Hezbollah in the first place.

Perhaps a different strategy is in order for the future?

Kevin Drum 1:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (163)

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August 3, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CLINTON vs. CLINTON?....Steve Clemons claims that Harry Reid is signaling to Hillary Clinton that if she decides not to run for president in 2008 he'll give up the majority leader's position to her in 2009. (Reid's office denies this.) Ezra Klein, reading the tea leaves about a Hillary presidential run, says:

Folks in the know tell me that Bill [Clinton] is actually the least enthused about her candidacy, as he believes McCain will be the 2008 nominee and no Democrat can defeat him. I wouldn't be surprised if Hillary, slowly realizing that her left flank is collapsing, may be grudgingly accepting Bill's conclusion.

I have exactly zero high level sources to my credit here, but this really doesn't sound right to me. McCain unbeatable? After eight years of a Republican presidency? Not only does that sound indefensible as a general proposition, but it doesn't sound like Bill Clinton, either. He's always struck me as the ultimate fighter, the guy who never gives up and always thinks there's got to be a way to win.

In any case, I sure hope this is wrong. If Bill Clinton really has given up on 2008, it's a bad sign. John McCain may seem like an affable guy when he hits the Daily Show or pops up on Good Morning America, but his foreign policy would be a gold-plated disaster. We just can't afford another four years of Republican macho posturing in place of actually making progress against Osama and his buddies.

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By: Kevin Drum

ALAN GREENSPAN'S HAIL MARY....Brad DeLong suggests that we might be headed toward recession because oil prices are spiking and the Fed has been raising interest rates. By itself, though, that's not enough:

Most likely the Federal Reserve's continued raises in interest rates will not send the economy into recession. But there is that chance, and the chance is raised from a low-probability possibility to a serious worry by the third factor: that home-as-ATM problem. The unprecedented use of home loans to squeeze cash out of equity has allowed middle-class consumers to spend well beyond their means. Someday this spending spree has to come to an end. If it comes to an end suddenly, at a time when the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates a little too much, then we have our recession.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, of course, is inheriting a problem that was deliberately aggravated by his famous predecessor, Alan Greenspan. Two years ago, with the housing bubble well underway but showing signs of slowing down and possibly taking the economy with it in an election year Greenspan did something very odd: he threw fuel on the home refinancing fire. Ben Wallace-Wells told the tale in "There Goes the Neighborhood," our April 2004 cover story:

[In February,] Greenspan recommended that the home-owning public take a good hard look at switching from fixed-rate mortgages, under whose terms payments stay the same no matter what interest rates do, to adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs), where payments fluctuate along with interest rates--which, right now, makes close to zero sense. Interest rates are lower than they've been in 30 years, and, with all economists predicting a general economic upturn, and Bush's budget deficit and the weak dollar sucking up capital, little doubt exists that interest rates must rise, in which case, switching from a fixed-rate to adjustable-rate mortgage would be pretty costly for any family nave enough to take Greenspan at his word. The episode did not pass completely without critical notice. It was "the strangest bit of advice ever to be proffered by an American central banker," Jim Grant, publisher of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

....Greenspan's rather ham-handed effort to get [homeowners] to go for ARMs, is a sign not of the chairman's own eccentricity or advanced age, but, instead, of the economy's current unsteadiness. Greenspan knows, perhaps better than anyone, that this economy is perched nervously on top of a wobbly, Dr. Seuss-like tower. Our recovery is propped up by consumer spending, which is in turn propped up by mortgage refinancing, and if that refinancing dries up before more props can be put in, the whole edifice could fall. "Since long-term interest rates cannot fall low enough to facilitate another wave of fixed-rate refinancings, he is trying to encourage homeowners to refinance one last time: fixed to ARM," Peter Schiff, president of Euro Pacific Capital in Los Angeles told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Greenspan recommended one last wave of refinancings, hoping against hope that things would turn out OK. If they didn't, of course, we'd not only get a recession, but millions of people who took his advice would end up broke because they couldn't afford the payments on their homes payments that Greenspan of all people knew perfectly well were dead certain to rise.

It was bad advice, and Greenspan knew it. And now it's coming home to roost.

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (122)

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By: Kevin Drum

FARM SUBSIDY GRUMBLING....In a demonstration that conservatives can occasionally make themselves useful, Jonah Goldberg rails against welfare for Big Agriculture today:

There are few issues for which the political consensus is so distant from both common sense and expert opinion. Right-wing economists, left-wing environmentalists and almost anybody in-between who doesn't receive a check from the Department of Agriculture or depend on a political donation from said recipients understand that Americans are spending billions to prop up the last of the horse-and-buggy industries.

....Subsidies combined with trade barriers (another term for subsidy) prop up the price of food for consumers at home and hurt farmers abroad. This is repugnant because agriculture is a keystone industry for developing nations and a luxury for developed ones.

This is true, and the collapse of the Doha trade talks aren't an excuse for doing nothing. We ought to be reducing farm subsidies even if Europe won't, and we ought to be doing it unilaterally. George Bush like doing things unilaterally, right?

I would also take things a little farther than Jonah. I don't want to make any grandiose claims about the effect of a single policy change, but this is the kind of thing that we ought to be doing as part of our campaign to win the war on terror. High farm subsidies send a message to poor countries that not only do we not care about them exactly as Osama bin Laden claims but that we aren't willing to help them out even when it would benefit our own consumers and practically every relevant expert in our own country agrees that it's a step we should take. Reducing farm subsidies would help poor countries, it would provide jobs for their citizens, it would improve our image as good global citizens, and it would do all this even if the feckless farm-ocrats of the EU continued to stick their heads in the sand and refuse to cooperate.

Ah well. We might as well whistle into a hurricane. Too bad this hurricane can come back to bite us.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (124)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOSING DAVID BRODER....What's the modern day equivalent of "losing Walter Cronkite"? Perhaps losing David Broder?

In today's column he doesn't quite come right out and say that we need to withdraw from Iraq, but he sure wiggles up to within kissing distance of it. Will the rest of centrist Washington follow?

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ESTATE TAX IN THE BALANCE....According to the Washington Post, the business community has carefully weighed up the pros and cons of the pending Republican legislation that combines an increase in the minimum wage (boo!) with a decrease in the estate tax (hooray!) and they're on board:

Business lobbyists said the trade-off between a lower estate tax and a higher minimum wage clearly favors the business community and upper-income Americans...."Every closely held business in America today is either affected by the death tax or could be affected by it," one top business lobbyist said.

Now this is actually a bit odd. There's an abstract sense in which every small business "could be" affected by the estate tax, but in reality virtually none of them actually are. The CBO estimates that even under current law a mere 485 small businesses are affected by the estate tax each year note that that's not 485 thousand or 485 million, it's 485 and if the exemption were raised to $3.5 million, a change that even Democrats endorse, the number would be reduced to 94.

Ninety. Four. The entire business community is practically giving itself whiplash making a U-turn on the hated minimum wage in order to reduce the estate tax on 94 businesses each year. Wow.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, I see in the fine print here that the Republican legislation would increase the size of the estate tax exemption to $10 million per couple by 2015 and then index it to inflation thereafter. It's funny how indexing for inflation is out of the question when it comes to something like the minimum wage, but turns out to be an essential safeguard when it comes to making sure that a $10 million estate tax exemption doesn't dwindle away to nothing due to future congressional inaction.

Think of it: in terms of actual purchasing power, that $10 million exemption could easily decline to $9.5 million, or even $9 million, if future congresses were to dilly dally over passing an increase. Thank God America's future heirs to great fortunes are being protected from the ravages of inflation by today's Republican Party.

Kevin Drum 12:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

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August 2, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PERSONAL BLEGS....I have a couple of quick questions for the masses. First: I have a PayPal account and I would occasionally like to use it to make anonymous contributions to people and organizations. Is this possible?

Second: does anyone make an inexpensive DVD player that plays discs from multiple regions? Can anyone offer a recommendation?

Kevin Drum 7:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FOGIES AND THE TURKS....Matt Yglesias argues, basically, that young liberal turks who have only been following politics since the time the Republican Party went batshit insane (which would be either 1994, 1998, or 2000, depending on how you keep score) have a fundamentally different worldview than old liberal fogies who have been following politics for decades. Given the GOP's recent history of using bipartisan charades as a thin excuse for back alley political muggings, the first group considers the whole idea of bipartisanship to be dangerously naive. The second group, conversely, continues to value traditional bipartisan comity as a way of getting things done.

Noam Scheiber offers a slightly different gloss on the same subject:

I'd put it this way: The first group basically thinks George W. Bush and the GOP are the biggest threat to the country these days. From that it follows that anyone who enables the Bush-era GOP is complicit in hurting the country. The second group at least the portion that was supportive of Bill Clinton came of age at a time when you could argue that the threats to the party (and the country) from the left were as big as the threats from the right. Back then, this group regarded the left wing of the Democratic Party as substantively wrong and politically self-defeating.

Most of the second group no longer thinks the far left represents as big a threat as Bush and the GOP; some, like Lieberman, still do. But, either way, it's tough to get over your formative political experiences, which is why there's still a lot of sympathy in this group for the Liebermans of the world.

This attitude is what I've come to think of as Kaus-ism. Although reasonable minds can differ on this subject, Noam is right that beating up on loony-lefty Dems in the 70s and early 80s was arguably necessary for the health of both the party and the country. But here's the thing: it worked. In the late 80s and 90s the party became far more soberminded, adopting nearly all the prescriptions that the centrist neoliberals had been fighting for. The neolibs didn't win every single battle no faction ever does but they sure won a lot of them.

At the same time, the Republican Party abandoned the (in hindsight) relatively pragmatic conservatism of Ronald Reagan and became crazed reactionaries under leaders like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and eventually Dick um, I mean George Bush. This is not your grandfather's Republican Party.

So yeah: In 1975, when Time magazine wondered aloud if capitalism could survive and the Republican candidate for president was the Eisenhower-esque Gerald Ford, it might have made sense to think that it was worth spending your energy on fighting deranged hippies in your own party. But today? When serious lefties sneer at the Democratic Party and Republicans are united behind the barroom gibberish of George Bush? Why should anyone even moderately left of center spend more than a few minutes a week worrying about a barely detectable liberal drift in the Democratic Party? Will the tut-tutters not be happy until CEOs make 1000x the average wage instead of the mere 400x they make now and the 200x they made during the Reagan years? How much farther to the right do they want Dems to go?

Beats me. As with foreign policy, I fundamentally believe that domestic politics is primarily a battle of public opinion, and scorched earth policies mostly come back to haunt you. At the same time, you still have to fight like you mean it and you have to adapt to your opponents' tactics. Worrying about lefties in the Democratic Party when the GOP is led by a guy named George Bush is like worrying about the Michigan Militia when a guy named Osama is driving airplanes into your buildings. The fogies need to get real.

Kevin Drum 6:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (169)

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By: Kevin Drum

COLA....The minimum wage is in the news again, and like many liberals I favor indexing it so it keeps up with the cost of living. Thinking about this got me wondering about something, though.

As everyone knows, median wages (adjusted for inflation) increased steadily from the end of World War II through the 60s. Then, in the mid-70s, they suddenly stagnated. Depending on who and how you measure things, median wages have either gone up slightly, stayed flat, or gone down slightly since then. But whichever measure you use, wages haven't come anywhere close to keeping up with economic growth over the past 30 years.

Why? There are lots of reasons (though many of them, like globalization, have been considerably overstated), but here's one that might have contributed: the widespread acceptance of COLAs (cost of living adjustments) that took hold during the inflationary 70s. During that decade it became increasingly common to view wage increases as a response to inflation and to institutionalize COLAs as a way of dealing with this.

But the end effect was that eventually COLAs became a ceiling for wage increases, not a floor, and workers increasingly began to see that as fair. They were happy as long as they were "keeping up."

But of course, "keeping up" is literally all it is. A COLA increase is nothing more than a way of keeping your wages exactly the same. So for the past 30 years, workers have been getting COLA increases and thinking that's fair, without fully realizing that in the past workers used to get real increases. Back in the 50s and 60s, as the economy grew everyone got richer.

I'm just noodling here. For all I know, this suggestion was thoroughly discussed and perhaps discarded years ago by some branch or another of the economics profession. But I wonder if there's a widespread perception that as long as you're keeping up with inflation you're doing OK, and that's led to an institutionalized set of lowered expectations about wage increases? If inflation were zero, and it were more obvious that wages had gone nowhere for the past 30 years, would people be more unhappy about things than they are?

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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By: Kevin Drum

NORAD ON 9/11....The full Vanity Fair article on the NORAD tapes from 9/11 is here. Here's an interesting snippet about American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center:

The problem, [Colin] Scoggins told me later, was that American Airlines refused to confirm for several hours that its plane had hit the tower. This lack of confirmation caused uncertainty that would be compounded in a very big way as the attack continued. (Though airlines have their own means of monitoring the location of their planes and communicating with their pilots, they routinely go into information lockdown in a crisis.)

....[Later that morning:] The chase is on for what will turn out to be a phantom plane...."When we phoned United [after the second tower was hit], they confirmed that United 175 was down, and I think they confirmed that within two or three minutes," Scoggins, the go-to guy at Boston Center for all things military, later told me. "With American Airlines, we could never confirm if it was down or not, so that left doubt in our minds."

....Over the next quarter-hour, the fact that the fighters have been launched in response to the phantom American 11 rather than American 77 or United 93 is referred to six more times on Nasypany's channel alone.

Uncertainty about the fate of American 11 played a big role during the rest of the day. Maybe this is old news and I just haven't seen it, but can someone tell me why American Airlines declined to cooperate with the United States military over the fate of a hijacked plane? What the hell?

Other news from the tapes: Cheney and Bush didn't learn about United 93 until about a minute before it crashed. There was never any discussion of shooting it down, as Cheney kinda sorta implied later. However, this doesn't strike me as something to get too worked up about. Bush did wrestle with the decision about shooting down the hijacked planes, and gave the authority to do so 15 minutes after United 93 crashed. As it turned out, that was the last of the hijackings, but no one knew it at the time and NORAD was in full battle mode. At the time the decision was made it was surely every bit as difficult as Cheney made it out to be.

Oh, and one other thing. Why did the Pentagon release the full NORAD recording from 9/11 to a film producer but not to anyone else? Shouldn't this have been publicly released long ago if it wasn't classified?

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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By: Kevin Drum

"A COMPLETE RENAISSANCE"....Tony Blair spoke in Los Angeles today. The Guardian reports:

Tony Blair called for a fundamental reappraisal of British and US foreign policy yesterday, admitting that excessive emphasis on military power and failure to address the Palestinian issue had left the west losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East.

In a speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, the prime minister admitted "we are far from persuading those we need to persuade" that western values were even-handed, fair and just in their application. He said there was no point disguising the damage being done to the cause of peace in the Middle East by the war on the Lebanese border, but suggested that when the war finally ended "we must commit ourselves to a complete renaissance of our strategy to defeat those that threaten us".

I don't know if he really means it, and if he does mean it I don't know if he has any chance of getting anyone in the Bush administration to pay any attention to him. But at least he seems to be saying the right things. It's not much, but I'll take it.

Kevin Drum 2:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (217)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOLDEN OLDIES....I used to work in the document imaging industry, and aside from a general cynicism about our industry's future ("the paperless office will take over at about the same time as the paperless bathroom," went the usual joke), the most pervasive irony was the dawning realization that imaging and other digital automation actually increased the amount of paper used in offices. Lots of stuff got scanned and stored, but then it eventually all got printed out. Multiple times. And then copied and distributed. And then mailed.

Today, the New York Times reports on a similar irony:

In 2005, revenue from first-class mail like cards and letters, which still made up more than half the Postal Services total sales of $66.6 billion, dropped nearly 1 percent from 2004. But revenue from packages helped make up for much of that drop, rising 2.8 percent, to $8.6 billion, last year, as it handled nearly three billion packages.

It is impossible to say how many of these were online orders, but Postal Service officials give e-commerce a lot of credit.

Six years ago, people were pointing at the Internet as the doom and gloom of the Postal Service, and in essence what weve found is the Internet has ended up being the channel that drives business for us, said James Cochrane, manager of package services at the Postal Service.

I don't really have anything to say about this. It just brought back fond memories of both my old industry and the general dotcom euphoria of the late 90s that predicted the post office would die a quick and well-deserved dinosaur's death. Those were the days.

Kevin Drum 1:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

RAW DATA....Does a higher minimum wage lead to higher unemployment? A conservative friend sent me some raw data on the subject, which I converted into the handy scatterplot on the right. It shows the minimum wage vs. the unemployment rate for 18 European countries plus the United States. Here's our email exchange, complete and unabridged:

From: Conservative Friend
To: Kevin Drum

Its hard for me to find any evidence that high minimum wages cause unemployment.

From: Kevin Drum
To: Conservative Friend

Hmmm. I'm not sure this meets even my low polemical standards. Surely minimum wage ought to be expressed as a % of median (or something similar), and unemployment would have to be measured consistently between countries and then averaged over a few years?

From: Conservative Friend
To: Kevin Drum

This is why your side is losing. If these data showed that the higher the minimum wage, the higher the unemployment rate, I can almost guarantee that it would be in tomorrows Wall Street Journal.

I find his conclusion hard to argue with.

Kevin Drum 1:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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August 1, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PROSPERITY IS JUST A PAULSON AWAY!....I don't know whether Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is really up for committing political suicide by trying to push Social Security privatization once again next year, but I enjoyed these comments of his in a speech today:

Paulson said the slow growth in take-home pay was simply an economic reality "and it is neither fair nor useful to blame any political party."

"Rather than playing the blame game, we must focus on helping workers move up the economic ladder," Paulson said....If economic growth continues and productivity stays strong, income growth will eventually follow, he said.

I wonder how long he thinks we should wait? We've had economic growth and strong productivity gains for the last 30 years or so, but we still don't have the promised increases in take-home pay. So here's an idea: In the same way that waiting another six months for progress in Iraq is now called a "Friedman," perhaps another decade waiting for increases in take-home pay should be called a "Paulson."

Kevin Drum 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (184)

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By: Kevin Drum

USE OF FORCE....You won't usually find me on the same page as the fine folks at INDCJournal (the "Confirm John Bolton" ad currently running on their sidebar should be your first clue), but occasionally cats and dogs can sleep together. Here is Bill Ardolino yesterday:

There's a common idea, almost exclusively promoted among right-wing pundits, that more force is necessarily more effective force.

....But the global war on terror is a wildly asymmetrical conflict that's only going to grow more frustrating and complex....As a result, much of the bluster about ditching Queensbury rules and going "Dubya Dubya Too" on our "enemies" as an evident solution to the conflict is simply that: bluster...."Nuking Mecca" won't do a whit of good, and in fact [will] accomplish the opposite of any cowing intent.

....I think that it's time for some right-wing pundits to either move beyond the lazy general concept of "more force" is necessarily "better force," or at least present a practical, detailed plan for an aggressive subjugation of "the enemy" that goes beyond "we need to get serious! If only those ******s in Washington would take the gloves off!"

Hear hear. I think there are several points we agree on (some of this was clarified via email, by the way):

  • It is, of course, absurd to suggest that greater force doesn't generally win wars. Not for nothing did Cato the Elder end every speech with a ringing cry of "Carthago delenda est," and Carthage has had a notably minor impact on world affairs ever since.

  • Even in local insurgencies, brutal application of force can be effective. Saddam and the marsh Arabs are a pointed case.

  • However, thanks to modern media and modern weaponry, the track record of major powers ending large-scale insurgencies with massive military power is approximately zero in the past half century including cases where the war was fought with ruthless brutality. And like it or not, a modern insurgency is what we're fighting. We'd be well advised to stop complaining about how unfair this is and get on with business.

  • Nuclear holocaust aside, then, conventional war simply won't succeed in stopping global jihadism, and we need to stop thinking that maybe it will if we just kick it up another notch. It won't kill off our enemies; it will just make their recruiting easier. And if they feel the same way about us in 30 years as they do now, we're in serious trouble.

Now, as Bill notes, we likely still have a "fundamental difference in opinion" about when to apply force and when not to. But I'm willing to take small steps first. If we can manage to agree on the idea that the fight against militant jihadism is, essentially, the biggest counterinsurgency effort ever, it's a good start. It means that when we think about using force, we think about it not in terms of whether it's "justified," or whether it will kill enough people (it won't), but in terms of whether it advances our long-term goal of ratcheting down the number of people who support large-scale terrorism.

We'll still probably disagree more than we agree. But even having an analytic framework in common would be progress.

Kevin Drum 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHANGING THEIR TUNE....Mike Gerson thinks evangelicals would be well advised to keep some distance from the Republican Party. Richard Armitage thinks the Israeli air campaign in Lebanon is a bad idea. Richard Haass literally laughs at the idea that the Iraq war is having a positive impact on the Middle East.

And of course, we've already heard from Richard Clarke, John DiIulio, Larry Diamond, Paul O'Neill, Larry Wilkerson, and a host of others. It's amazing, isn't it, the number of Bush aides who develop sudden attacks of candor as soon as they leave the administration and are no longer drinking the Kool-Aid? Who will be next?

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

SUPERRICH TAX CHEATS....Dramatic tax cuts for the superrich just aren't enough. They want more!

So many superrich Americans evade taxes using offshore accounts that law enforcement cannot control the growing misconduct, according to a Senate report that provides the most detailed look ever at high-level tax schemes.

....We need to significantly strengthen the aiding and abetting statutes to get at the lawyers and accountants and other advisers who enable this cheating, Senator [Carl] Levin said, adding that we need major changes in law to stop the use of tax havens by tax cheats.

Better statutes and more auditors would help, as would appointment of judges who don't turn themselves into pretzels to find reasons to approve of convoluted tax avoidance schemes. ("The money changed hands for two and a half minutes? Sounds like a genuinely risky investment to me, not a sham transaction. Case dismissed!")

There is, literally, no non-laughable argument for not cracking down on this stuff. But will a mere sense of shame be enough to procure the votes of half a dozen Republicans? Recent history is not kind to the notion, but we'll see.

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

REALITY SINKING IN?....Condoleezza Rice's "diplomacy" last week in Rome was, quite plainly, nothing more than a fig leaf designed to give Israel more time to conduct its bombing campaign in Lebanon. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that this time around the Bush administration might actually be sincere in its calls for peace:

After presenting a united front against international calls for an immediate cease-fire in the three weeks since fighting began, the U.S. and Israel are diverging some on how much longer Israel should continue its offensive against Hezbollah. While Israel continues to say its campaign will take weeks, the U.S. is shifting its diplomatic focus from trying to buy Israel more time for its campaign against Hezbollah to pushing for a cease-fire package that would end the bloodshed.

....A senior administration official said the U.S. believed Israel would have only a matter of weeks to strike Hezbollah before international pressure for a cease-fire forced an end to the fighting, especially if civilian casualties climbed. Now, the official said, the U.S. is beginning to fear that it could be left both with mounting regional fury and an emboldened Hezbollah that has withstood the initial assault without losing its ability to inflict casualties on Israeli troops and civilians.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. The Bushies are "beginning" to fear that a massive conventional assault (a) might not work against a guerrilla organization and (b) might cause some regional blowback because massive conventional assaults kill lots of civilians. Do they need sandwich boards hung around their necks to remind them of this?

What was Albert Einstein's famous definition of insanity? "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." I just hope we all manage to survive George Bush's attempt to test Einstein's thesis.

Kevin Drum 12:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (256)

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