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Tilting at Windmills

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August 31, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Today it's all Domino, all the time. Last weekend Marian's sister brought up an antique bench doohickey she was no longer using, and it has quickly become the New Favorite Thing™ for both cats. Mostly, though, it's become Domino's property, as Inkblot has decided instead to take possession of the table that we moved out of the way to make room for the bench. It's exactly the same table we've always had, but it's now about three feet away from where it used to be, which of course makes it New and Fascinating.

Anyway, Domino loves the bench, and thanks to her humans' clever opposable thumbs she was also able to discover the Secret Hiding Place inside the bench — which she also loves. Turns out it also provides a nice, warm light for picture taking, so I figured I'd show everyone both the inside and the outside. That means no Inkblot picture this week, but them's the breaks. He'll be back next week.

Kevin Drum 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY UNIONS MATTER....Mark Thoma hosts a conversation over at Economist's View today. First, Stephen Gordon writes about the effect of unions on income inequality:

It's hard to conclude from this chart that union density matters much when it comes to reducing inequality. For example, look at Germany (where unions play a crucial role in setting wages) and the US (where they are decidedly less important): both have identical levels of inequality of market income. The distribution of disposable income [i.e., income after taxes and government benefits] is lower in Germany because of its redistributive policies, not because unions are more powerful.

Commenter Anne is aghast:

Rubbish, complete rubbish. Unions in Germany are both a reflection of social-economic attitudes and reinforce those attitudes. Unions have been continually and successfully active politically in Germany, continually shaping policy.

"Rubbish" is a little harsh — and as another commenter says, the data here is a little tricky because reunification probably increased German income inequality after 1989 for reasons unrelated to unionization. (If you look only at the former West Germany, inequality in market income is probably lower than in the U.S.) Still, Anne makes a good point: the bulk of the evidence suggests that unionization raises wages modestly, but not immensely. However, if you're interested in government policies that actively favor the working and middle classes, you need to have some kind of substantial political interest group fighting on their side. That's Politics 101, and right now unions are pretty much all we've got. They aren't perfect, and they frequently act only in their own narrow self-interest, but without them there's no organized opposition to the agenda of corporations and the rich. Warts and all, they're worth supporting until something better comes along.

Kevin Drum 1:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PR SURGE....Last Tuesday I wrote about the effectiveness of Gen. David Petraeus's PR efforts in support of the surge:

Petraeus has been very shrewd about providing dog-and-pony shows to as many analysts, pundits, reporters, and members of Congress as he could cram into the military jets criss-crossing the Atlantic to Baghdad on a seemingly daily basis this summer. And those dog-and-pony shows don't seem to have been subtle....He's obviously been treating the September report like a military operation, trying to generate as much good press and congressional change of heart as he possibly can in the weeks leading up to 9/11.

In the Washington Post today, Jonathan Weisman confirms the nature of Petraeus's briefings:

More than two dozen House members and senators have used the August recess to travel to Iraq in the hope of getting a firsthand view of the war ahead of commanding Gen. David H. Petraeus's progress report in two weeks on Capitol Hill. But it appears that the trips have been as much about Iraqi and U.S. officials sizing up Congress as the members of Congress sizing up the war.

Brief, choreographed and carefully controlled, the codels (short for congressional delegations) often have showed only what the Pentagon and the Bush administration have wanted the lawmakers to see. At one point, as Moran, Tauscher and Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) were heading to lunch in the fortified Green Zone, an American urgently tried to get their attention, apparently to voice concerns about the war effort, the participants said. Security whisked the man away before he could make his point.

Tauscher called it "the Green Zone fog."

"Spin City," Moran grumbled. "The Iraqis and the Americans were all singing from the same song sheet, and it was deliberately manipulated."

There's an interesting story waiting to be written about how much time and effort Petraeus has spent whipping the Army's press office and congressional liaison office into the lean, mean fighting machines they obviously are today. It's pretty clear that this was a high priority concern from the day he took over, as he planned his PR offensive to coincide with the surge itself. It'll be too late, of course, but I imagine that story will get written eventually.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Kevin Drum

UP IS DOWN AND VICE-VERSA....Juan Cole is pissed:

I saw on CNN this smarmy Bush administration official come and and say that US troop deaths had fallen because of the surge, which is why we should support it. Just read the following chart bottom to top and compare 2006 month by month to 2007. US troop deaths haven't fallen. They are way up.

....How brain dead do the Bushies think we are, peddling this horse manure that US troop deaths have fallen? (There are always seasonal variations because in the summer it is 120 F. in the shade and guerrillas are too heat-exhausted to fight; but the summer 2007 numbers are much greater than those for summer 2006; that isn't progress.) And why does our corporate media keep repeating this Goebbels-like propaganda? Do we really live in an Orwellian state?

I'll leave that last question to Atrios, who, if memory serves, is pretty good at answering questions like that. My part in this is simpler. Prof. Cole wants someone to turn his troop fatality numbers into a graph to make it clear exactly what he's talking about, and obviously I'm your man for that kind of grunt work. So here it is. Pictorial evidence that troop fatalities in Iraq are down1 this year, just like surge proponents are saying. Pay attention, Congress.

1See post title for clarification of commonly accepted surge terminology conventions.

Kevin Drum 11:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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"WE SHOULD START OVER"....Another draft report has been leaked to the press, this one a detailed look at the Iraqi police force in the wake of 2006's "year of the police":

The commission, headed by Gen. James L. Jones, the former top United States commander in Europe, concludes that the rampant sectarianism that has existed since the formation of the police force requires that its current units "be scrapped" and reshaped into a smaller, more elite organization, according to one senior official familiar with the findings. The recommendation is that "we should start over," the official said.

....However, a new attempt to disband an Iraqi force would also be risky, given the armed backlash that followed the American decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army soon after the invasion of 2003.

This is becoming a comedy of the absurd. Scrap the Iraqi police force? Start over from scratch? Is this a joke? Even if we could do it, it means (a) putting 26,000 armed and pissed off Iraqis back on the street, (b) running the country without a police force until a new one is recruited and trained, and (c) spending two or three years building a replacement. And that's the good news. The bad news is that there's no reason to think the shiny new police force would be any better than the old one. It didn't improve after all our efforts in 2006, after all. The unpleasant truth is that there's a reason the police force acts essentially as an extension of the Shiite militias — namely that that's exactly how the Shiite government wants it — and no reason to think that's going to change anytime in the near future.

So let's take stock. Pretty much everyone has lost confidence in Nouri al-Maliki, though there's no replacement in sight who seems like a better bet. The police force is so corrupt that the best advice the Jones commission can offer is to disband it completely and start over from scratch. And the Iraqi army, after three years of intensive training designed by one Gen. David Petraeus, has a grand total of six battalions capable of operating on their own.

In other words, except for the fact that Iraq has a disfunctional government, a disfunctional police force, and a barely functional army, things are going great. I can't wait to see how Crocker and Petraeus spin this into an argument for staying another four years.

Kevin Drum 1:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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August 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

REVISIONS....The National Security Network has a good rundown today of all the book-cooking that may be surrounding reports of declining violence in Iraq. Note this in particular:

There were significant revisions to the way the Pentagon's reports measure sectarian violence between its March 2007 report and its June 2007 report. The original data for the five months before the surge began (September 2006 through January 2007) indicated approximately 5,500 sectarian killings. In the revised data in the June 2007 report, those numbers had been adjusted to roughly 7,400 killings — a 25% increase. These discrepancies have the impact of making the sectarian violence appear significantly worse during the fall and winter of 2006 before the President's "surge" began.

Read the rest here. Congressional Democrats need to muster up the backbone (and staff work) to press Petraeus and Crocker really hard on this issue. They can't afford to get suckered by slippery numbers. Conversely, if the violence figures are genuinely solid, Petraeus and Crocker ought to be able to provide solid evidence for them.

Kevin Drum 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Kevin Drum

PRINCIPLES....Jonah Goldberg complains about the notion that conservatives are more warmly disposed to farm subsidies than liberals:

This always puzzled me because I think Yglesias and countless others are basically right when they complain that subsides are a bipartisan phenomenon of appropriators (though I would argue that liberalism is philosophically more conducive to this sort of thing because it offers no principled objection to lavish spending of this sort beyond a crude argument that there are others more deserving of welfare).

All the worse for conservative philosophy, then, since it certainly doesn't seem to have made a lick of difference when it comes to real-life legislating. If conservatives are philosophically opposed to farm pork — and Jonah offers a creditable argument that they're not only philosophically opposed but almost universally opposed in practice as well — and yet Republicans all merrily and enthusiastically support ag subsidies anyway, then what good are conservative principles in the first place?

Kevin Drum 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

MULTIPLE CHOICE QUIZ....Rep. Jon Porter, who recently hopped the Baghdad Shuttle to chat with our guys on the ground, reports back:

The Nevada Republican, who returned Tuesday from his fourth trip to Iraq, met with U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Iraqi Deputy President Tariq al-Hashimi and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh.

"To a person, they said there would be genocide, gas prices in the U.S. would rise to eight or nine dollars a gallon, al-Qaida would continue its expansion, and Iran would take over that portion of the world if we leave," Porter said Wednesday in a phone interview from Las Vegas.

There are two possibilities here: (a) Petraeus and Crocker really did say that stuff, or (b) Porter is lying. If it's the former, then Petraeus and Crocker have pretty plainly decided to become frothing administration attack dogs on Iraq, not honest brokers. If it's the latter, Petraeus and Crocker ought to be plenty pissed. Which is it?

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT....After reading a Washington Post article about Democrats who are afraid to stand up to President Bush on terror legislation, Hilzoy says:

Oh, come on. As I said above, the Republican party is not very popular these days. Moreover, it's not as though it's hard to craft a really inspiring message on these issues. We're not talking about some arcane feature of patent law that it's genuinely difficult to get people to care about; we're talking about the freedoms we all claim to cherish. Honestly, if Democrats can't figure out how to make a winning issue of keeping the government from being able to throw you in jail without having to explain themselves to anyone, or at least to prevent it from outweighing what looks to be their pretty serious electoral advantage in 2008, they must be brain dead. And if they can't be bothered to support our Constitution if there's any possibility that it might cost them politically, then their love of their country must be dead as well.

Look, I agree completely with Hilzoy on substantive grounds. But that doesn't mean we should minimize the political side of this. The fact is that it is hard to craft an inspiring message on these issues. The vast, vast majority of Americans don't feel affected in any way by Guantanamo or NSA eavesdropping or enemy combatant laws. And when people don't feel personally affected, it's hard to get them to care, especially when your opponents are screaming about how it's going to be your fault if terrorists attack this summer and kill thousands of people because you neutered the NSA's ability to listen in on Osama's cell phone conversations.

By way of analogy, the census bureau announced yesterday that 47 million Americans don't have health insurance. A lot more either have lousy insurance, are afraid of losing their insurance coverage, or are swamped with medical bills even though they're supposedly fully covered. That's a lot of Americans who are very personally affected by the malfunctioning of our healthcare system. And yet, Clintoncare failed in 1994 anyway and we're no closer to healthcare reform today than we ever have been. It's just too easy to create oppositional political campaigns that scare the hell out of people.

I'm not really arguing with Hilzoy here. Democrats do need to get a spine. I'm just saying that the right political message for our side really is fundamentally more difficult than it is for the fear merchants, especially when the fear merchants have a kernel of truth on their side. After all, there really are terrorist groups out there who'd happily kill us in vast quantities if they could just muster up the means to do it.

On the NSA wiretapping bill, Democrats got outplayed. They negotiated badly, they got suckered by Mike McConnell, they were splintered, they didn't have the right message, and they panicked. They need to raise their game on all these fronts, and none of them are slam dunks. This is tough stuff.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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FOOT TAPPING AND BATHROOM CRUISING....Yesterday one of my readers emailed to say he was annoyed by all the ignorant blog commentary emanating from straight young whippersnappers on the subject of Larry Craig's restroom shenanigans in Minnesota:

Here's what set me off: Craig's actions have been considered ample grounds for arrest for decades. Tens of thousands of gay men have gotten permanent records (quite often a fourth or fifth-degree felony), frequently losing jobs and going onto "sex offender" lists. Gay rights advocates have been furious about this for a long time.

If lefty bloggers feel the Minnesota police behaved outrageously, why haven't they said anything before? If Craig's arrest marks their introduction to this heinous practice, where's the outrage for all the victims? Writing "I don't see how he broke any laws," without understanding that society criminalized those actions long ago sounds naive. Do they really think no one has ever come to that conclusion before — or tried to change the practice and failed?

Today, non-whippersnapper blogger and cultural critic David Ehrenstein writes in the LA Times to provide a bit of related historical background. In 1964, LBJ aide Walter Jenkins was arrested for soliciting sex in the men's room of a Washington D.C. YMCA in what was then one of the few ways gay men could hook up. Five years later the Stonewall riots kicked off the gay rights movement:

That movement, with its defiant insistence on being free to be as gay as all-get-out, quickly left the likes of Walter Jenkins and, if the cops were right, Larry Craig in the dust. They're part of a subculture within a subculture that was memorably identified by the daring sociologist Laud Humphreys in a landmark sociological study titled "Tearoom Trade."

Taking his cue from Kinsey, Humphreys was fascinated with married-with-children men who didn't self-identify as gay or bisexual, yet still sought clandestine sex with other men on the side. Humphreys, when he began his research, was one of these I'm-not-gay(s) himself, though he eventually came out.

Published in 1970, "Tearoom Trade" is full of useful information about foot tapping, shoe touching, hand signaling and all the other rituals those so inclined use to make contact with one another in such places. Clearly no media outlet should be without a copy — especially Slate.com, whose editors revealed their cluelessness on the subject this week in a "real time conversation" rife with unintentional hilarity: "I can't believe it's a crime to tap your foot." "Can someone explain the mechanics of how two people are supposed to commit a sex act in a stall where legs are visible from the knee down?"

Who knows? Maybe the Larry Craig incident will have a silver lining, prompting states to begin questioning all their solicitation laws. And if not that, maybe at least the stupider and most antique ones. A guy can dream.

Kevin Drum 11:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (151)

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By: Kevin Drum

SKULLDUGGERY IN CALIFORNIA....Matt Yglesias, after a bit of throat clearing about the current attempt by Republicans to finagle a chunk of California's electoral college vote via a new initiative, says:

At any rate, after I posted on it various Californians piped up pretty confident that there's nothing to worry about.

Since I was one of those Californians he mentions, I should revise and extend here. What I meant was that the GOP initiative is almost certain to fail if Democrats and liberal interest groups mount the kind of campaign they usually do against partisan initiatives like this. It wasn't a counsel to sit around and do nothing. In fact, I suspect that California Republicans know perfectly well that their scheme has little chance of passing, and that getting Democrats and liberal interest groups to waste time and energy on this thing was pretty much the whole idea from the get-go.

And while we're on the subject, I should mention that I am in favor of electing presidents via direct popular vote. Several states have passed (or are considering passing) an initiative that would do just that by promising to deliver all their state's electoral votes to whoever won the popular vote — but only if states with a majority of electoral votes had joined in and agreed to do the same. I don't favor this because I think a 2000-style election is all that likely to happen again in the near future, but because I'm tired of presidential campaigns that essentially take place in only a dozen states or so. I say, make 'em campaign everywhere. I want to see all the attack ads too.

Kevin Drum 11:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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PREEMPTING PETRAEUS....In perhaps its least surprising report ever, the GAO reports that things are not going so well in Mesopotamia:

Iraq has failed to meet all but three of 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for political and military progress, according to a draft of a Government Accountability Office report.

What's slightly more surprising is that the GAO all but calls the administration and the Pentagon liars. Politely, of course:

The draft provides a stark assessment of the tactical effects of the current U.S.-led counteroffensive to secure Baghdad. "While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced," it states. While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged. It also finds that "the capabilities of Iraqi security forces have not improved."

"Overall," the report concludes, "key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds," as promised. While it makes no policy recommendations, the draft suggests that future administration assessments "would be more useful" if they backed up their judgments with more details and "provided data on broader measures of violence from all relevant U.S. agencies."

Yes, it would be useful if Petraeus and the White House provided actual credible data to back up their assertions of tactical triumph, wouldn't it? The fact that they don't most likely means they know exactly what would happen if their methodology ever saw the light of day: it would get laughed off the stage before the noise machine even had a chance to clear its throat.

One more interesting thing: the Post actually explains why someone leaked a draft copy of the report to them: the leaker was afraid it would get watered down before final publication and wanted to make sure that someone knew what the GAO really thinks. Considering what happens to most reports that go through the DoD wringer, I'd say that shows considerable foresight.

Kevin Drum 12:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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August 29, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SEND THEM ALL TO A COLD AND DESOLATE PLACE AND THEN STRAND THEM....Air Greenland finally solves the wingnut pundit problem! Thanks guys!

Kevin Drum 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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SKYROCKETING!....Over the next ten years, which is a bigger hit to the budget deficit: (a) out-of-control entitlement spending or (b) the Bush tax cuts? Answer here. Be sure to keep this in mind the next time Robert Samuelson or some likeminded "centrist" pundit wails about bipartisan cowardice on entitlement spending but somehow doesn't find the time to mention unipartisan lunacy on taxes.

And with that, sayonara Max. We're going to miss you.

UPDATE: Yes, yes, it's Robert, not Paul. Robert, not Paul. Jeez. You'd think I'd stop making this mistake eventually.

Kevin Drum 2:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICAL UPDATE....A couple of days ago I wrote about an announcement from the Iraqi government that it had reached consensus on several political issues, including de-Baathification, oil laws, and provincial elections. The announcement didn't get much play, though, and the reason seems to be that nobody really believes it's for real. Today, Time's feature editor emails to recommend his magazine's take:

Why Baghdad's Latest Deal is No Deal

....Sunday's deal was more notable for who wasn't involved than who was. The agreement didn't include representatives from the bloc loyal to Shi'ite politician and militia chieftain Moqtada al-Sadr....As a practical matter, an agreement to reconcile with former Baathists is next to meaningless without Sadr's acquiescence. And the Sadrists weren't absent simply from Sunday's deal. At the moment they are not even part of the government; like their Sunni adversaries they are engaged in a boycott.

Sunni political leaders have a similar problem. As the same Western diplomat put it, there is "the question of the connection between national politics and what's happening on the local level." With the U.S. military cutting deals with Sunni tribes and ex-insurgents to help battle al-Qaeda in Iraq, the influence of the Sunnis' national political leadership becomes more and more questionable.

Time's piece goes on to note that "The agreement may give Ambassador Crocker some rare and much-needed good news to highlight when he delivers his surge status report to Congress next month." Marc Lynch agrees and goes further:

This agreement was likely produced for the sole purpose of giving Ryan Crocker something to bring back to Congress (and is what I expected weeks ago). But it doesn't actually solve anything: [Sunni leader Tareq al-Hashimi] has made very clear that he has no intention of rejoining Maliki's government, the agreements exist only on paper at this point, and nothing has been done about the deeply sectarian nature of what passes for the Iraqi state.

For now, that seems to be something of a consensus view: Sunday's announcement is notable mostly because it gives Crocker and Petraeus something positive to point to during their September testimony, not because it signals real progress. As Ilan Goldenberg points out, we've been down this road before when there was political pressure to show a "breakthrough," and it hasn't meant much once it served its PR purpose. Probably the same thing is happening this time around.

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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FOLLOW THE MONEY....The census report yesterday that documented a rise in the number of people without health insurance also reported an increase in median earnings. So at least there was some good news, right? Not quite:

Experts said the rise in income was mainly a reflection of an increase in the number of family members entering the workplace or working longer hours. Average wages for men and women actually declined for the third consecutive year.

Italics mine. Among full-time workers, income declined 1.1% for men and 1.2% for women. And — this will come as a shock, so be sure you're sitting down — incomes decreased a bit at the low end and increased a bit at the high end, causing the Gini index of income inequality to go up yet again. But it wasn't a statistically significant increase, so no need to worry. Except that these statistically insignificant annual changes do add up:

The Gini index has increased 1.7 percent since 2002 (0.462) and 3.3 percent over the past 10 years (from 0.455 to 0.470). There have not been any statistically significant annual changes in the Gini index over the past 10 years.

This is some economic expansion we're having, isn't it? It's really kicked the market economy into high gear.

UPDATE: Bonus Kaus bashing here. When are you going to teach this punk a lesson, Mickey?

Kevin Drum 12:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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$50 BILLION....The Washington Post reports that President Bush plans to ask for an additional $50 billion to fund the surge:

The request is being prepared now in the belief that Congress will be unlikely to balk so soon after hearing [David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker] argue that there are promising developments in Iraq but that they need more time to solidify the progress they have made, a congressional aide said.

So that's that, I guess. The White House already knows what Petraeus and Crocker are going to say and they figure it's going to be $50 billion of good news. And with that, the Kabuki show continues.

Kevin Drum 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (152)

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INSIDE THE HIGHER ED LOBBY....As part of our September education issue, Ben Adler takes a look at the higher education lobby to find out what they like and what they don't. Which category do you think this falls under?

For decades, education experts have been concerned about declining teacher quality in K–12 schools, and in the late 1990s the Clinton administration tried to address the problem by improving colleges' notoriously lackluster teacher-training programs. The Education Department put together a proposal requiring states to report the percentage of teacher-training-program graduates from each school who pass the state licensure exam, and to report which of their education schools, many of which are affiliated with major universities, were underperforming. Schools that consistently failed to produce graduates capable of passing the exams would lose their eligibility to receive federal aid for teacher training.

So what happened next? Read the story and find out!

Kevin Drum 1:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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August 28, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE SOUTH....Speaking of civil war in the south of Iraq — and we were just speaking of it, weren't we? — here's the latest:

Clashes between rival Shiite Muslim militias in the holy city of Karbala today killed at least 50 people, torched three hotels and prompted Iraqi authorities to order the evacuation of more than 1 million pilgrims from the shrine where they had gathered.

More than 150 people were injured in the helter-skelter panic that followed random gunfire by militants in the Mahdi Army loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr and those of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

....The death toll threatened to climb, with witnesses reporting dozens of bodies in the streets surrounding the Imam Hussein shrine and amid the smoldering rubble of the three buildings set on fire during the rampage.

I don't know about you, but I'm sure glad we're sticking it out in Iraq in order to referee a fight between the country's two leading Shiite political blocs. Pretty shrewd use of American power projection, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 6:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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CRAIG vs. VITTER....Lots of conservative bloggers, following Hugh Hewitt's lead, have called for Larry Craig to resign even though they didn't call for David Vitter to resign when he was outed for visiting prostitutes last month. Is this because Craig was trolling for gay sex and Vitter was trolling for straight sex? Probably, but before we go too far down that road I think Scott Lemieux is merely stating the obvious with his alternative explanation:

In the specific case of Hewitt, though, there's probably a more important factor: Louisiana's governor is a Democrat, and Idaho's is a Republican. Craig resigning would mean a Republican incumbent going into the 2008 election; Vitter resigning would mean another Democratic Senator. So no conservative pundit should get credit for standing on principle for demanding that Craig resign, and that goes triple if they haven't made the same call for Vitter (who actually violated the law, although he did so in a more heterosexual way that will help to earn forgiveness from conservatives.)

Does anyone seriously want to argue that Scott is off base here? Of course conservatives are turning against Craig secure in the knowledge that they're running no actual political risk. We're not children, are we?

Kevin Drum 3:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (157)

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HEALTHCARE IN AMERICA....The latest news from the healthcare front:

The nation's poverty rate declined for the first time this decade, but the number of Americans without health insurance rose to a record high of 47 million in 2006, according to Census figures released today.

....The addition of 2.2 million people to the roster of the uninsured was attributed largely to continuing declines in employer-sponsored insurance coverage.

Cue an avalanche of blog posts, op-eds, TV rants, and floor speeches insisting that (a) the census figure is unreliable for one reason or another, (b) uninsured people get all the healthcare they need anyway, (c) it's all the fault of liberals who have driven up the cost of healthcare with pointless regulations about doctors washing their hands and so forth, (d) Canadians have longer wait times for hip replacements than we do, (e) the media only reports this stuff when Republicans are in office, (f) poor people ought to exercise more and eat better, (g) Michael Moore is fat, or (h) all of the above. I can't wait.

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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THE PETRAEUS REPORT....The Washington Post reports that Gen. David Petraeus managed to get the recent intelligence assessment of Iraq toned down:

The NIE, requested by the White House Iraq coordinator, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, in preparation for the testimony, met with resistance from U.S. military officials in Baghdad, according to a senior U.S. military intelligence officer there. Presented with a draft of the conclusions, Petraeus succeeded in having the security judgments softened to reflect improvements in recent months, the official said.

This reminds me of something. I don't remember if I've ever blogged about this before, but until recently my guess was that Petraeus's September report to Congress would be pretty sober. My thinking was that he's a smart guy, and realizes that trying to paint too pretty a picture would ruin his credibility. So instead he'd present a basically realistic assessment, but stud it with just enough signs of progress to convince everyone that he deserved more time to make the surge work.

Now I'm not so sure. Petraeus has been very shrewd about providing dog-and-pony shows to as many analysts, pundits, reporters, and members of Congress as he could cram into the military jets criss-crossing the Atlantic to Baghdad on a seemingly daily basis this summer. And those dog-and-pony shows don't seem to have been subtle: rather, they've been hard-sell propositions complete with "classified" PowerPoint presentations (always a winner for people with more ego than common sense); visits to a handpicked selection of the most successful reconstruction teams in the country; a plainly deceptive implication that the surge played a role in the Anbar Awakening; feel-good stories about how local power generation is a good thing; the recent insistence that civilian casualties are down, which increasingly looks like a book-cooking scam that wouldn't stand the light of day if Petraeus allowed independent agencies access to his data; and, of course, the ongoing campaign to scare everyone by kinda sorta claiming that Iran and al-Qaeda are ramping up their activities and then getting suddenly slippery whenever anyone asks if they have any real evidence for this.

Petraeus is still a smart guy. He won't go too far overboard. But he's obviously been treating the September report like a military operation, trying to generate as much good press and congressional change of heart as he possibly can in the weeks leading up to 9/11. I now expect him to provide just the opposite of what I thought before: a consistently upbeat report studded with just enough accomodations to reality to keep him from seeming completely ridiculous.

And the question is: Will everyone swoon? Or will they demand more than just anecdotal evidence and unsupported statistics? I hope for the latter, but I fear for the former.

Kevin Drum 12:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORNING RANT....In the LA Times today, L.J. Williamson is upset that part-time cafeteria workers in Los Angeles schools want the district to provide them with healthcare benefits:

Part-time food service employees are seeking the same health benefits — including coverage for their families — that their full-time counterparts enjoy. Extending these benefits to cafeteria staff who currently work only three hours a day would cost an estimated $40 million a year, according to school board calculations.

....This is fat that the food service's too-lean budget simply doesn't have. If health benefits were extended to these part-time workers, the CFPA estimates it would mean that the per-plate meal budget would be reduced from 85 cents to 49 cents. Making healthy food available for that amount would take a miracle of biblical proportions. So we'd be improving the healthcare of nearly 2,000 part-time workers at the expense of the 500,000 children who eat in public school cafeterias every day.

I would happily pay for universal healthcare just so I never had to read an op-ed like this again. It's not that Williamson doesn't have a point, it's just that this beggar-thy-neighbor attitude is enough to make me retch, and I see it all the time. I don't get dental coverage, so why should grocery workers? My copay went up last year, so why shouldn't everyone else's? I don't pay for healthcare for my housecleaners, so why should I pay it for school cafeteria workers? Our wretched private healthcare system has turned us into a nation of spiteful and small-minded misanthropes.

It's true that the growing gap between public workers and private workers is a real problem. In the past, there was something of a tradeoff: public sector workers generally got paid less than private sector workers but made up for it with job security and benefits. Today, though, public workers generally get higher salaries and better benefits and more vacation and earlier retirement and more lucrative pension packages compared to comparable private sector workers. And private sector workers are understandably annoyed by this. But their annoyance would be better directed not at the lucky public sector workers, but at the mahogany row executives and conservative politicians who pretend that the only possible use for the mountains of cash generated by decades of economic growth is to give it all to mahogany row executives and the billionaires who contribute to conservative politicians. Maybe they should listen to John Edwards instead.

End of rant. Time to go check and see if there's any titillating new Larry Craig news this morning.

Kevin Drum 11:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

GREAT MINDS ETC.....Bizarrely enough, my wife said exactly the same thing yesterday, though perhaps in tones more of regret then of faux conspiracy theorizing. But still.

Kevin Drum 10:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

WISHFUL THINKING WATCH....Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang of the LA Times write that Alberto Gonzales's resignation may have a "silver lining" for George Bush:

"The Texas mafia is leaving," said Ron Kaufman, a longtime political advisor to the Bush family. "There's a shift in the philosophies of the appointees you have [around the president]. They are much more creatures of Washington, D.C., and not Austin, Texas."

But therein may lie an opportunity for Bush. In two weeks, the president has accepted the resignations of the two members of his staff who have drawn the most ire from the Democrats who now control Congress: Gonzales and political advisor Karl Rove. And that may give Bush a chance to salvage his relationship with Capitol Hill and the legacy of his second term.

Uh huh. I'm sure he's so looking forward to mending relationships with Democrats in Congress. Because, you know, he's a uniter, not a divider.

Come on, people. You're playing in the big leagues. Are you seriously trying to tell us that Bush's problems with Congress are due to recalcitrant aides? You do know who the cossacks work for, don't you?

Kevin Drum 1:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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August 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ POLITICAL UPDATE....I noticed this last night at the Beirut Daily Star but didn't get around to blogging it:

Iraq's top Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders announced on Sunday they had reached consensus on some key laws that Washington views as vital to fostering national reconciliation....The appearance of Maliki on Iraqi television with the other leaders was a rare show of public unity amid crumbling support for the prime minister's government.

....Iraqi officials said the leaders had signed an agreement on easing restrictions on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party joining the civil service and military.

"They signed a new draft on de-Baathification," said Yasin Majid, an adviser to Maliki.

Other officials said consensus had been reached on holding provincial elections and releasing many detainees who have been held without charge, a key demand of Sunni Arabs since the majority are members of their sect.

Majid said the leaders endorsed a draft oil law, which has been agreed by the Cabinet but has not gone to Parliament.

I can't tell if this is meaningful or not, and a quick scan of the front pages of CNN, the LA Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times reveals nothing. Juan Cole mentions it but doesn't provide an opinion one way or the other.

This is possibly good news, but I imagine, as usual, the devil is in the details. For now, just take it as raw data that might or might not pan out.

Kevin Drum 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

A SURGE REPORT CARD....So why have I been doing so much surge blogging lately? It's simple: guilt. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that a friend had told me I should pay more attention to the daily news from Iraq, but that I had declined on the grounds that Iraq's problems are deep and fundamental, not things that are truly affected by either daily setbacks or short-term successes. Worrying over every new car bomb or every new schoolhouse seemed pointless.

I still believe that, but the whole issue kept gnawing at me. I'm a professional blogger! The magazine pays me to care about stuff like this! Besides, maybe my friend was right. Maybe there really was some good news from the ground that I was overlooking.

I continue to believe that political reconciliation is what really matters in Iraq, and that it's all too easy to let day-to-day news distract you from that. For that reason, I don't plan to become a regular surge blogger. But for what it's worth, here's what I have to say about the situation on the ground:

  • The revolt of the Sunni sheiks against al-Qaeda in Anbar and other Sunni strongholds is genuinely good news. And while the revolt had nothing to do with the surge (it began last September, well before the surge started), our quick support for the sheiks demonstrated welcome military flexibility. Link. On the downside, this is a strategy with obvious risks, since there's a good chance that the sheiks will turn against us as soon as they've finished off AQI.

  • The civilian death toll in Iraq appears to be down from its peak earlier in the year, but still considerably higher than last summer. Link. My best guess is that we're just seeing the usual seasonal pattern here, in which violence peaks in the fall and then drops off over the summer. In any case, casualty stats these days are even vaguer and more unreliable than usual since the Pentagon refuses to release its figures and the Iraqi Health Ministry is no longer cooperating with the UN. Link.

  • It appears that insurgents may have simply left Baghdad temporarily during the surge and increased their activity elsewhere. Again, figures are spotty, but violence appears to be on the rise in northern Iraq. Link.

  • There are widespread reports that the Army under Gen. Petraeus has done a good job of improving its counterinsurgency tactics. However, the evidence so far is mostly anecdotal and based on carefully controlled visits. This makes it very difficult to determine whether this success is genuinely widespread.

  • Reports of progress are considerably undermined by the apparently growing consensus that the U.S. will need to keep a significant military presence in Iraq for the better part of the next decade. This is hard to square with genuine confidence that the surge is reducing violence significantly. Link.

  • Everyone agrees that the Iraqi police is still a disaster: corrupt, violent, and almost entirely infiltrated by Shiite militias. Link.

  • The Iraqi army is doing a little better, according to the Pentagon, but the evidence on that score is thin and anecdotal. Link. Other anecdotal evidence suggests that the Iraqi army is nearly as thoroughly infiltrated by Shiite militias as the police. Link1. Link2.

  • The British are leaving southern Iraq, which has already begun devolving into intra-Shiite civil war. Link.

  • The Kirkuk election is still scheduled for later this year. Increased violence there seems almost certain regardless of whether the election is postponed or held on schedule. Link.

  • With the exception of the telephone network, the infrastructure news is almost uniformly bad. Oil exports are down, fuel availability is lower, electricity generation is spottier, and attacks on pipelines are up. Link.

  • The Brookings Iraq Index estimates that the size of the insurgency has grown from 20,000 last year to 70,000 this year. I don't know how seriously to take these estimates, but that's a helluva big jump. Link.

So that appears to be the state of affairs on the ground. Anbar is good news despite the long-term risk of arming Sunni tribal leaders. Petraeus seems to be doing a good job on the counterinsurgency front (though it's frankly hard to say how much of this is good PR based on a limited number of success stories and how much is genuine widespread progress). And it's possible that violence is down in Baghdad, though I'd rate the odds of that at no more than 50-50.

On the downside, most of the evidence suggests that violence is following seasonal patterns and is going up, not down. The insurgency seems to be getting worse in the north. Civil war is breaking out in the south. Anecdotal reports of progress are undercut by suggestions that we'll need to stay in Iraq for another decade. The Iraqi police force is a disaster and the army doesn't appears to be much better, despite the usual Pentagon claims of improvement. Kirkuk is a timebomb. Iraqi infrastructure is in a ruinous decline. And the insurgency is apparently bigger than it was a year ago.

The conventional wisdom this summer, after a steady round of dog-and-pony shows from the military, says that although political progress in Iraq is nil (or even in reverse), at least we're finally making some tactical progress on the security front. And maybe we are. But I'm trying to be as honest as I can be here, and it looks to me like the balance of the evidence suggests that this is more hype than reality. As near as I can tell, we're not making much progress on either front.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

CRANKERY THAT REFUSES TO DIE....Bruce Bartlett shreds the idea of a national sales tax in the Wall Street Journal here. New things I learned: the idea orginally came from the Church of Scientology ("The Scientologists' idea was that since almost all states have sales taxes, replacing federal taxes with the same sort of tax would allow them to collect the federal government's revenue and thereby get rid of their hated enemy, the IRS") and public support for the idea is wobbly to say the least ("public opinion polls have long shown that support for flat-rate tax reforms is extremely sensitive to the proposed rate, with support dropping off sharply at a rate higher than 23%").

The upshot of this is that sales tax advocates universally claim that their plan can eliminate all federal taxes at a rate of — surprise! — 23%. The real number, you'll be unsurprised to learn, is north of 60%. But public opinion polls say it has to be 23%, so 23% it is.

This, of course, is the Mayberry Machiavelli theory of the modern Republican Party: policy analysis doesn't matter. Only politics matters. If the peepul support a rate of 23%, then who cares what the eggheads say? We're looking for votes here, not tax policy that actually works.

Of course, what's really amazing is that Bruce can write a thousand words on this subject and maintain a calm and even demeanor throughout. After all, among serious tax analysts a national sales tax ranks right up there with eliminating the Fed and putting the United States back on the gold standard. It's crankery. And yet it keeps rearing its ugly head, like a vampire that just won't die. Anybody got a silver bullet handy?

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW WORD NEEDED, PLEASE....Roger Cohen writes today that the original plan back in 2003 was to have two U.S. envoys to Iraq: Jerry Bremer to run the CPA and Zalmay Khalilzad, a Farsi-speaking Sunni Muslim, to begin forming an interim Iraqi government. Then, suddenly, the plan changed on May 6th and Khalilzad was out:

Alluding to former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor, Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security adviser, Khalilzad continued: "Powell and Condi were incredulous. Powell called me and asked: 'What happened?' And I said, 'You're secretary of state and you're asking me what happened!' "

Powell confirmed his astonishment. "The plan was for Zal to go back," he said. "He was the one guy who knew this place better than anyone. I thought this was part of the deal with Bremer. But with no discussion, no debate, things changed. I was stunned."

The volte-face came at a Bush-Bremer lunch that day where Bremer made a unity of command argument to the Decider. "I put it very directly to the president: you can't have two presidential envoys running around Iraq," Bremer told me.

.... Nonsense, Khalilzad believes. "I feel strongly that the U.S. ruling was wrong. We could have had an interim Iraqi government. I argued, based on Afghanistan, that with forces, diplomacy and money, nothing can happen anyway without your support."

Powell agrees. "Everything was Bremer, the suit, the boots, the whole nine yards." It was a mistake not to move ''more rapidly to putting an Iraqi face on it.''

....And chosen over lunch. "Unfortunately, yes, the way that decision was taken was typical," Powell said. "Done! No full deliberations. And you suddenly discover, gee, maybe that wasn't so great, we should have thought about it a little longer."

It's stuff like this that's kept me from fully buying into Matt Yglesias's "incompetence dodge" theory, the notion that it's a copout to think that we failed in Iraq solely because we weren't competent enough. It's not that I'm convinced he's wrong, it's just that every month or so we discover yet another piece of Bushian incompetence so staggering that you really think the word itself is simply inadequate to the task. Frankly, given everything we've learned about the Bush administration's approach to Iraq over the past four years, it's remarkable that we aren't in even worse shape than we are.

On the meta side, of course, the interesting question is: why is Khalilzad speaking out now? Is this some subtle way of trying to get Bush to fire him? Or what?

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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GONZO GONE....Chalk one up for Washington Whispers: Alberto Gonzales has resigned. No word yet on who's replacing him, but if it turns out to be Michael Chertoff they'll be batting a thousand.

Kevin Drum 10:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE CRUCIBLE....This isn't news to anyone, but it can't hurt to repeat it. Here's an excerpt from Evan Thomas's cover story in the current issue of Newsweek:

When the United States struck Afghanistan in 2001, "there were probably 3,000 core Al Qaeda operatives," says [John] Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School. "We killed or captured about 1,000; about 1,000 more ended up in distant parts of the world. And about 1,000 ended up in Waziristan. But the great terror university in Afghanistan is gone; they've relied on the Web since. They haven't had the hands-on instruction and the bonding of the camps. That's resulted in low-skill levels. Their tradecraft is really much poorer."

The danger now, says Arquilla, is that the longer the Iraq War goes on, the more skilled the new generations of jihadists will become. "They're getting re-educated," he says. "The first generation of Al Qaeda came through the [Afghan] camps. The second generation are those who've logged on [to Islamist Web sites]. The next generation will be those who have come through the crucible of Iraq. Eventually, their level of skill is going to be greater than the skill of the original generation."

Even the optimists don't seem to think that we have more than about a 10 or 20 percent chance of winning in Iraq — for whatever definition of "winning" is currently in vogue. But it's not a 20% chance of winning versus a downside of zero. There's pretty much a 100% chance that the longer we stay in Iraq, the stronger al-Qaeda will get. Anyone who isn't taking that into account isn't taking the war seriously.

Kevin Drum 1:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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August 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

RUMORS....Here's the latest from U.S. News & World Report's Washington Whispers column:

The buzz among top Bushies is that beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finally plans to depart and will be replaced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Why Chertoff? Officials say he's got fans on Capitol Hill, is untouched by the Justice prosecutor scandal, and has more experience than Gonzales did, having served as a federal judge and assistant attorney general.

This doesn't seem very likely to me, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. What I'm really curious about, though, is whether or not anyone has ever plowed through, say, a year's worth of Washington Whispers columns and figured out its track record for "buzz" items like this. Are they mostly true? Mostly bogus? Half and half? Should I even be paying attention to stuff like this?

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

TRACKING THE SURGE....AP does its own tracking of violence in Iraq and has just released its report for July. Here's a summary:

  • The overall death toll is down from its peak, but is still about double the rate from last summer.

  • A military spokesman differed, saying fatalities are at their lowest level since June 2006, but "offered no statistics to back his claim."

  • As nearly everyone predicted, many of the insurgents have simply moved out of Baghdad into other areas: "Initial calculations validate fears that the Baghdad crackdown would push militants into districts north of the capital....In July, the AP figures show 35 percent of all war-related killings occurred in northern provinces. The figure one year ago was 22 percent."

  • Residents are fleeing: "The number of displaced Iraqis has more than doubled since the start of the year, from 447,337 on Jan. 1 to 1.14 million on July 31."

Take this for what it's worth. Apparently, violence is down from its peak earlier this year, but since that's the normal seasonal pattern it's hard to say how meaningful it is.

In any case, it's obvious that even the Pentagon isn't putting any stock in these figures. In a briefing on Friday, Brig. Gen. Richard Sherlock warned that "insurgents might try intensify attacks in Iraq to coincide with three milestones: the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., the beginning of Ramadan and the report to Congress." In others words, they know perfectly well that the recent decline is mostly seasonal and they expect the numbers to go back up later this year.

Bottom line: they're simultaneously trying to suggest that the surge is responsible for the recent seasonal decline in fatalities and preemptively insisting that no one should blame the surge when seasonal deaths go back up in the fall. At least, that's how it reads to me. Your mileage may vary.

Kevin Drum 1:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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NINE OR TEN YEARS....Commenting on Gen. David Petraeus's view that we'll need to stay in Iraq for nine or ten years, Matt Yglesias says:

It really is striking how un-optimistic the more optimistic views of Iraq are when you get down to it. Michael O'Hanlon thinks our strategy "probably can't succeed" unless the political situation in Iraq magically alters. General Petraeus thinks he's making so much progress that the war will need to continue twice as long again as it's already gone on.

Right. And as long we're bringing O'Hanlon into the picture, here's what he says:

Over the long term, the United States must be looking to draw down its force levels in Iraq overall — probably to 100,000 or fewer troops — by about 2010/2011.

If O'Hanlon thinks that by 2011 we'll only have drawn down to 100,000 troops, that suggests he doesn't think total withdrawal will happen until, say, 2016/17 or so. In other words, nine or ten years.

Matt says that's so far out that it's crazy to even pretend we can forecast what will happen. But it's actually worse than that. Consider two other big counterinsurgency wars that were going badly after a few years: Vietnam in 1964 and Afghanistan in 1984. In both cases, the entangled superpower had the option of either pulling out and taking its lumps or extending the conflict, and in both cases it made the choice to extend the conflict. And both times that was the wrong decision. Staying in Vietnam did immense long-term damage to the national security of both Southeast Asia and the United States, and staying in Afghanistan was a leading cause of the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. For both countries, staying involved in a long and deadly counterinsurgency almost certainly did far more harm than pulling out would have.

So if you had to guess whether another five or ten years would be good or bad for the United States, the odds say it will be bad. Very, very bad.

Kevin Drum 12:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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August 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE HOUSING BUBBLE....The New York Times reports that the median home price is going to fall this year for the first time since the end of World War II:

Economists say the decline, which could be foreshadowed in a widely followed government price index to be released this week, will probably be modest — from 1 percent to 2 percent — but could continue in 2008 and 2009.

....Unless the real estate downturn is much worse than economists are expecting, the declines will not come close to erasing the increases of the last decade.

I dunno. The article is accompanied by the chart below (with some additions in red) and it's sure hard to believe that the downturn is going to be as small as the chart suggests. Housing prices are a full third higher than historical trendlines predict, and I still haven't heard any compelling reason why the housing market should have changed drastically and permanently starting in 1996. Sure, in a few big cities like Los Angeles you can argue that there's just no more room to build and that's driving a long-term change, but what about the rest of the country?

It's all very mysterious to me. I tend to believe in long-term trends unless there's a really compelling reason to think that fundamentals have changed. But while housing fundamentals might have changed a little bit (buyers are obviously willing to spend a bigger percent of their income on housing than we once thought), it sure seems like prices were propped up mostly by falling interest rates, a credit bubble that's bursting as we speak, and the same kind of hysterical buying and selling we saw in the dotcom boom. Housing may be inherently more stable than the stock market, but even so, it sure seems like we're due for a correction of more than few percent. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 9:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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MORE O'HANLON....According to Steve Clemons, "Mike O'Hanlon is under contract with the US government's propaganda network, Alhurra." Really? That seems worth a disclosure or three, I'd say.

UPDATE: Alex Rossmiller of the National Security Network says in comments:

Steve's overstating the case here.

I appreciate what he's trying to do, but al Hurra, while a U.S. government-funded exercise, is hardly an administration mouthpiece. They offer a stipend to everybody who goes on, so the money isn't tied to ideological fealty. I should know: they have no problem having me on repeatedly (and providing said stipend for each appearance) even though I'm resolutely critical of the administration — and not in the fake O'Hanlon way, either.

Now, I don't know if he actually has a *contract* — if so, maybe that would make a slight difference — but it's a huge stretch to say he's "on the administration payroll" because he gets money that originated with the State Department for saying whatever he wants on a TV station.

UPDATE 2: Steve Clemons responds:

O'Hanlon is not just getting a stipend for appearing now and then on Alhurra. According to another Alhurra employee, he is "under contract" to them not just as a commentator but as someone who helps produce shows, line up others, etc....that is different — and compensated far more robustly than the modest honoraria you may receive for appearing.

Kevin Drum 6:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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THE O'HANLON/POLLACK REPORT....I mentioned yesterday that I had been reading the report prepared by Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack after their recent trip to Iraq. What I was looking for was concrete data related to improved security, as opposed to subjective impressions about morale and improved COIN efficiency.

This is not because concrete metrics are the only way to measure progress. Far from it. But it's easy to kid yourself about this stuff, especially on a trip in which you travel in a cocoon of official Pentagon representatives. O&P, for example, found a "significant improvement in the morale of American forces." But Tina Susman of the LA Times reports today that "signs of frustration and of flagging morale are unmistakable." Who's right? To be honest, I found Susman's piece fairly weak. But at least she presented some evidence for her case, whereas O&P merely made an assertion that our troops were happier and then moved on. In the end, though, it hardly matters. Even with the best of intentions this kind of reporting is both inherently unreliable and notoriously susceptible to both conscious and unconscious confirmation bias.

The value of metrics, then, is to keep yourself honest. It's easy to get carried away with subjective judgments, and what's more, even if morale really is improving and U.S. troops really are embracing a smarter approach to counterinsurgency, that doesn't matter unless it's making an actual, tangible difference. At some point this stuff has to translate into fewer deaths, fewer car bombs, an insurgency on the run, etc. So what measurable improvements do O&P offer up? I could find only two:

  • "Car and truck bombs are...often less powerful than before."

  • "Roughly a one-third decline in the monthly rate [of civilian casualties] since just before the surge began."

The first point is almost certainly wrong. The data is here, and bombings don't appear to be getting less lethal at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As for the one-third reduction in civilian casualties, who knows? There's no footnote to explain how they've come to this conclusion. The Brookings Iraq Index (author: Michael O'Hanlon) reports a drop in civilian casualties but unhelpfully explains the data only as "estimates provided by the authors." In his Washington Post op-ed today, O'Hanlon says merely that "the Pentagon showed us data" indicating a drop in casualties. Conversely, Leila Fadel reported last week that "statistics gathered by McClatchy Newspapers don't support the claim." The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month that Iraqi government death tolls are unreliable and AP reported that July fatalities were 23% higher than in June. What's more, even if casualties have dropped, without regional breakdowns there's no way of knowing how much of the decrease is due to places like Anbar and Ninawah — where everyone agrees violence has declined — and how much is due to actual surge-related progress in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Bottom line: O'Hanlon and Pollack cite only two concrete security metrics, and of those, one appears to be flatly wrong and the other is unsubstantiated and highly doubtful. Instead we get lots of phrases like "signs of progress," "appear to be reducing," and "our observations suggest." To say the least, this is an unpromising track record.

It's possible that the Iraqi Army really is getting better (though see here and here for contrary evidence from the ground); that U.S. troops really have embraced proper counterinsurgency techniques at lightning speed; and that provincial reconstruction teams are doing some good work. But it's also true that Iraq's infrastructure continues to decline; the police are "still a disaster"; Iraq's economy "remains largely moribund"; unemployment is "sky high"; and among the political leadership the situation is "awful," "worse than stalemate," and "paranoia and backstabbing predominate." And this is without even mentioning the upcoming election in Kirkuk or the brewing intra-Shiite smackdown in southern Iraq.

Given all that, O'Hanlon's entreaty in the Post today that we should believe him even in the face of spotty and unreliable evidence because "Our assessments are based on our observations as well as on years of study" — well, that's pretty weak tea, isn't it? Considering how disastrous the political situation is, how poorly the infrastructure and the economy are doing, how often we've been assured of progress in the past, and the fact that most security metrics indicate that Iraq is doing worse this summer than last, I think it's fair to ask O'Hanlon and Pollack for more evidence of progress than just regurgitation of talking points from the military brass they traveled with. Whining about how unfairly they're being treated is a poor substitute for the healthy skepticism they should have displayed in the first place.

Kevin Drum 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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August 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

VICTORY....Jim Henley on how the war will eventually play out:

Most civil wars eventually end, so the Beltway Consensus intends to ride the Iraqi one out. Assuming it concludes, whoevers in charge can declare victory, as if the whole point of invading Iraq was to eventually "end" the civil war that would break out as a result of the invasion. The whole course of events will have made a mockery of every public justification for the war in the first place. The only way anyone could declare it a "victory" would be if, after all, the aim of being in Iraq was simply to be in Iraq. Which is to say, if we end up with a basing agreement after an eventual armistice, the real purpose of the war will have been served. It just happens that they could never have convinced the country to waste thousands of American and millions of Iraqi lives (counting the refugees) and hundreds of billions of dollars on building some new forts where they're not wanted. Which is why they didn't sell the war on that basis.

True enough. The civil war has to end eventually, and George Bush's plan seems to be to hold on and hope that maybe it burns itself out on his watch. You never know, after all.

But while it's true that all civil wars end eventually, "eventually" can be a very long time. If we're lucky, this one will end when the ethnic cleansing is finished and every region in the country and every neighborhood in Baghdad is fully segregated. That might only take a couple more years. If we're unlucky, the war will continue until the Sunni minority is obliterated and one of the Shiite factions has gotten a firm upper hand. That might take more like five or ten years.

The latter is more likely, but in any case the final resolution hardly depends on the U.S. presence. The Iraqis are going to do whatever the Iraqis are going to do. As Jim says, the only thing we get out of staying — aside from the certainty of increased instability and at least a decent chance of a wider regional war — is the possibility of owning two or three gigantic bases once the fighting stops. Pretty good investment, eh?

POSTSCRIPT: And if we're really unlucky? Let's not even go there this evening. The idea that an American withdrawal could lead to increased bloodshed is conventional wisdom, but for some reason, the idea that America's continued presence could be the thing that turns an Iraqi civil war into a regional conflagration seems to be beyond most people's imagination. They should think harder.

Kevin Drum 9:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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YET MORE TACO BLOGGING....Since I'm apparently destined to become as famous for taco blogging as for cat blogging, I guess I might as well dive all the way in. Here's the latest. Although the New Yorker might not have taken notice of tacos until 1974, a friend emails to advise me that the New York Times was on the ball as early as 1952. The item below, from the "News of Food" column of May 3, 1952, was the second feature after a discussion of how to make a proper mint julep. Note the paragraph halfway through explaining how to pronounce "taco."

Kevin Drum 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....For some reason, Inkblot got a surge of energy yesterday and shot up into the tree out in our front yard. The trunk of the tree is at an angle, and it's a pretty big trunk, and the branch he ended up on is only about five feet off the ground — but still, it was quite a leap for him. Once he was there, though, he didn't seem to quite know what to do with himself. He looked confused for a couple of minutes, allowed me to take a picture or two, and then jumped down to the nice, safe, non-gravitationally challenged ground.

Still, it was a better showing than I got from Domino, who was willing to open her eyes for the camera but not much else. I guess I woke her up before she got her full 22 hours in.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ANBAR AWAKENING....Josh Patashnik has other problems with National Review's latest editorial about Iraq, but it's this passage that makes me want to bang my head against the wall:

The fact is that the surge is President Bush's policy, and one that he implemented over the vociferous opposition of Democrats who thought the best strategy against al Qaeda in Iraq was to begin to leave. Now the surge has helped turn Sunni tribes against al Qaeda, advancing the goal that nearly everyone in the U.S. notionally shares of routing the terror group from Iraq.

Say it slowly: This. Is. A. Lie. The Sunni tribes began turning against AQI nearly a year ago. They did it on their own, not as part of any American military plan. They did it before the surge started. They did it before Gen. Petraeus was even a gleam in George Bush's eye. Here's the truth:

The turnabout began last September, when a federation of tribes in the Ramadi area came together as the Anbar Salvation Council to oppose the fundamentalist militants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

....The council sought financial and military support from the Iraqi and American governments. In return the sheiks volunteered hundreds of tribesmen for duty as police officers and agreed to allow the construction of joint American-Iraqi police and military outposts throughout their tribal territories.

....Beginning last summer and continuing through March, the American-led joint forces pressed into the city, block by block, and swept the farmlands on its outskirts. In many places the troops met fierce resistance. Scores of American and Iraqi security troops were killed or wounded.

....The fact that Anbar is almost entirely Sunni and not riven by the same sectarian feuds as other violent places, like Baghdad and Diyala Province, has helped to establish order. Elsewhere, security forces are largely Shiite and are perceived by many Sunnis as part of the problem. In Anbar, however, the new police force reflects the homogeneous face of the province and appears to enjoy the support of the people.

The Anbar Awakening is genuinely good news, but (a) it had nothing to do with the surge, (b) it's happening only in homogeneous Sunni areas, and (c) it involves arming and training Sunni forces who are almost certain to turn against both us and the Shiite central government as soon as they've finished off AQI. Pretending otherwise is simply fraudulent.

Kevin Drum 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

CONTRACEPTION....Cristina Page writes in the Baltimore Sun this week that the press should pay attention not just to Republican candidates' rhetoric on abortion, but also to their rhetoric on birth control in general:

There are code phrases to listen for — and for those keeping score, [Mitt] Romney nailed each one. One code phrase is: "I fought to define life as beginning at conception rather than at the time of implantation."....Mr. Romney's code, deciphered, meant, "I, like you, hope to reclassify the most commonly used forms of contraceptives as abortions." In fact, he told the crowd, he already had some practice redefining contraception: "I vetoed a so-called emergency contraception bill that gave young girls abortive drugs without prescription or parental consent."

....For now, the candidates vying for the Right to Life endorsement are doing their best to avoid directly answering mainstream voters' simple questions on the subject, such as, "Do you support couples having access to safe and effective birth control options, including emergency contraception?" Considering that even 80 percent of self-described "pro-life" voters and a majority of Republican voters strongly support contraception, it's no wonder why.

Via Ann Friedman, who has more. If the GOP field is going to compete with each other to pander to their base on this, the media ought to let the rest of us know it. Words matter, right?

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

TERROR AND THE GOP....Look, maybe Hillary Clinton shouldn't have said this. Probably she shouldn't have. But let's not stick our heads in the sand and pretend that she's actually wrong. She's not, and we'd better be prepared to deal with it.

Now, whether or not Hillary is best able to deal with this is another question entirely, and one I'm pretty agnostic about right now. But like it or not, it's something that someone is going to have to deal with. It may be ridiculous, but life is sometimes ridiculous.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (123)

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By: Kevin Drum

BOMBINGS IN IRAQ....Last night I was reading the report O'Hanlon and Pollack wrote after their recent trip to Iraq (not the NYT op-ed, the actual report) because I was curious to see if they provided any actual metrics indicating that the surge was working, as opposed to merely subjective judgment about things like morale and COIN effectiveness. The short answer is no, though more about that later.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, there's one piece of good news from Iraq these days: the number of bombings is down this summer compared to last summer. This is one metric that O'Hanlon and Pollack did mention, but look at how they do it:

Successful U.S. tactics have gone well beyond classic military measures. For example, coalition forces are now trying to remove nitric acid and urea from stores, since these are the ingredients for homemade explosives. As a result, when many car and truck bombs are detonated these days, they are often less powerful than before, further helping to explain the reduction in casualties....

This is crazy. The Brookings Iraq Index (author: Michael O'Hanlon) doesn't specifically track car and truck bombings anymore because "we are no longer receiving useful data on the number of car bombs in Iraq," but they do track "multiple fatality bombings" in general. Here are the numbers:

Feb/Mar/Apr

May/Jun/Jul

Change

Total # Bombings

160

124

-22%

Total Fatalities

2061

1579

-23%

Fatalities Per Bombing

12.88

12.73

-1%

This is the absolute best case for these numbers. In fact, they're cherry picked: the Feb/Mar/April period was unusually high for bombings, so any comparison with this period will produce the rosiest possible picture. Even at that, though, the lethality of bombings is the same post-surge as pre-surge. Conversely, if you compare apples to apples, and look at bombings this summer vs. last summer, the average number of fatalities per blast has gone up from 8.04 to 12.84. That's a huge increase, and suggests that bombs are getting more effective, not less.

Want more? The chart below shows the number of fatalities per bombing on a monthly basis since the start of 2006. If there's any kind of serious decrease in the effectiveness of Iraqi bombs over that period, I sure don't see it.

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE UN-SURGE....The LA Times reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff wants to dramatically cut the size of the U.S. military presence in Iraq:

Administration and military officials say Marine Gen. Peter Pace is likely to convey concerns that keeping a force well in excess of 100,000 troops in Iraq through 2008 would severely strain the military. This assessment could collide with one being prepared by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, calling for the U.S. to maintain higher troop levels for the next year and beyond.

....Pace's recommendations reflect the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who initially expressed skepticism in private about the strategy ordered by Bush and directed by Petraeus before publicly backing it.

According to administration and military officials, the Joint Chiefs believe it is of strategic importance to reduce the size of the U.S. force in Iraq in order to bolster the military's ability to respond to other threats, a view shared by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

....The chiefs are pushing for a significant decrease in troop numbers once the current buildup comes to an end — perhaps to as low as 10 combat brigades, or about half of the 20 currently in Iraq. Along with support units, that would lower the U.S. presence to less than 100,000 troops from the current 162,000.

This is just some raw data to munch over. I have no idea whether Pace and the JCS have any more influence now than they did last year when they advised against the surge and were told to stuff it. Probably not. In any case, I really don't see how Bush and Petraeus could possibly report enough progress in September to justify any troop drawdown. What rationale could they offer up with a straight face, after all?

Kevin Drum 1:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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August 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TACOS AGAIN....Were tacos really an exotic foodstuff in 1950s New York City? Martin Schneider searches through the New Yorker archives and sheds some light on this important culturo-culinary question.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SURGE....Is the surge working? That is, even if you ignore the lack of political progress, are we even making tactical progress? Since violence in Iraq tends to be seasonal, the only reasonable comparison is one between summer 2006 and summer 2007, so I went to the latest Brookings Iraq Index to check out the most recent numbers.

No figures are available for August, and the surge wasn't completely up and running until June, so the best comparison is between June/July 2006 and June/July 2007. I'm not pretending this is conclusive or anything, but the news sure doesn't look very good. The two tables below tell the story.

Violence Metrics

June/July
2006

June/July
2007


Change

Iraqi Military and Police Killed

349

429

Up 23%

Multiple Fatality Bombings

110

82

Down 25%

# Killed in Mult. Fatality Bombings

885

1,053

Up 19%

Iraqi Civilians Killed
(All violent causes)

6,739

5,300

Hard to say1

U.S. Troop Fatalities

104

187

Up 80%

U.S. Troops Wounded

983

1,423

Up 45%

Size of Insurgency

20,000+

~70,0002

Up ~250%

Attacks on Oil and Gas Pipelines

8

143

Up 75%

1Methodology changed dramatically between 2006 and 2007, so numbers are highly suspect.
2Number is for March 2007.
3Numbers are for June only. No July numbers are available.

Infrastructure Metrics

June/July
2006

June/July
2007


Change

Diesel Fuel Available

26.7 Ml

20.7 Ml

Down 22%

Kerosene Available

7.08 Ml

6.3 Ml

Down 11%

Gasoline Available

29.4 Ml

22.2 Ml

Down 24%

LPG Available

4,936 tons

4,932 tons

Down 0.1%

Electricity Generated

8,800 Mwatts

8,420 Mwatts

Down 4%

Hours Electricity Per Day

11.7

10.14

Down ~14%

4No numbers available for June/July. Figure is extrapolated from May and August numbers.

Kevin Drum 5:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (120)

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By: Kevin Drum

INVENTING THE NEWS....Did Michelle Obama take a backhanded swipe at Hillary Clinton a few days ago? If you read her full comment, it's pretty obvious that she didn't. But if you pull a single one of her sentences out of context, it's possible — with the help of a very febrile imagination — to twist it into some kind of sly dig.

So which interpretation ended up getting the most attention? Do I have to tell you? Bob Somerby has the blow-by-blow. Go read it.

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By: Kevin Drum

DON'T READ THIS POST....Here's the new press policy at the NHTSA, the federal agency in charge of auto safety. (1) Agency experts are no longer allowed to talk to reporters on the record. (2) The communications office (!) is not allowed to talk to reporters on the record. (3) The agency's administrator is not available to talk on the record about the policy barring staffers from talking on the record. (4) Her chief of staff explained to a reporter that "we were finding a lot of stuff did not need to be on the record," but then insisted that this statement itself was off the record.

How does the Bush administration expect comedians to stay in business when they're doing all their work for them? Steve Benen has the full story.

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By: Kevin Drum

"MORE PRECARIOUS"....The Associated Press has gotten hold of a copy of the intelligence community's latest assessment of Iraq. Here's the highlight:

The report predicts that the Iraqi government "will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months" because of criticism from members of Iraqi Shiite parties, Iraq's top Shiite religious figure Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other Sunni and Kurdish factions.

The assessment also expresses deep doubts that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can overcome sectarian divisions and meet benchmarks intended to promote political unity. It finds that Shiite factions have looked at ways to constrain him.

In other words, surge or no surge, our intelligence community is already predicting that things will get worse over the next year.

Needless to say, this will be used as evidence that we need to stick around. Can't leave while the country is unraveling! If things were getting better, of course, that too would be used as evidence that we need to stick around. Can't leave when we're right on the verge of victory! And what if things weren't getting better or worse? Do I need to tell you?

UPDATE: The full report is here.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

VIETNAM REDUX....Are we really going to be forced to seriously debate George Bush's Rambo-esque notion that we could have won in Vietnam if only we'd stuck it out a little longer? Let's check out what's happening on the left and the right.

On the right: the Weekly Standard has posted not one, not two, but three separate pieces — two by idiot savant David Gelernter — that have been hauled up from the archives. Verdict: you bet your ass we could have won in Vietnam.

National Review also has three pieces on the same theme, and Peter Rodman's pretty clearly wins the Wingnut History award for the day. He's not content merely to suggest that the United States could have won in Vietnam — a trope that's common enough on the right — but claims that this is practically a "consensus" among military historians. That's chutzpah! Move along boys, nothing left to argue about here.

And on the left? Nothing at the New Republic. Nothing at the Nation. Nothing at the American Prospect.

There are two possibilities here. The first, and happier one, is that lefties and the rest of the mainstream are simply going to ignore the frothing on the right and allow them to burble meaninglessly among themselves about this. The rest of us will decline the invitation to get distracted and instead spend our time on actual adult issues.

The second, less happy notion, is that the right is, as usual, merely reacting faster than the left. Liberals will respond, they'll just do it several days or a week too late, thus not only looking lame, but actually extending the lifespan of this trumped up "controversy."

All things considered — and I say this with some sadness — the left really needs to react. The president has spoken, after all. But if that's the case, can't we react a little faster? And wouldn't it be nice if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama responded immediately with a serious speech taking on the president's fantasies? Or am I just having fantasies of my own?

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (133)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TIGER'S TAIL....The New York Times reports that the intelligence community will release a new assessment of Iraq's future on Thursday:

"The report says that there's been little political progress to date, and it's very gloomy on the chances for political progress in the future," said one Congressional official with knowledge of its contents.

....The report, which was intended to help anticipate events over the next 6 to 12 months, is "more dire in its assessments" than the administration has been in its own internal discussions, according to one senior official who has read it. But the report also warns, as Mr. Bush did on Wednesday, that an early withdrawal would lead to more chaos.

"It doesn't take a policy position," one official said. "But it leaves you with the sense that what we've been doing hasn't been working, but we can't let up, or it'll get worse."

So we can't stay and we can't leave. Terrific. What's worse, we now have a president who's officially decided to take history lessons from Rambo. Turns out we were this close to winning in Vietnam when the Defeatocrats decided to pull the plug. And with that, yet another longtime conservative fantasy makes its way out of the fever swamps and into the public discourse, where we'll all be expected to stroke our chins and pretend to take it seriously for the next week or so.

I need a drink.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FED AND THE BUBBLE....Dean Baker thinks that the housing market is in big trouble. Brad DeLong disagrees:

I guess the big difference is that I don't think that home prices are likely to plunge. Why not? Because Ben Bernanke is more aware than any other possible Fed Chair that large-scale housing asset price deflation threatens to have the same bad consequences as large-scale commodity price deflation, and I don't see a future in which he allows housing prices to fall without first taking major steps to prevent it.

OK, but what can Ben Bernanke do about this? There are things the Fed and the Treasury can do to cushion the blow for homeowners and investors who lose money or face foreclosure, but what policy instruments do they have to deal with the downward price spiral itself? Maybe I'm missing something obvious, but if buyers stop wanting to buy houses then prices are going to plunge. What can the Fed do to prop up demand or reduce supply? What did they do in 1991? Anything?

Kevin Drum 1:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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August 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE ARGUMENT....REVISITED....Yesterday I wrote a short post about Matt Bai's new book, The Argument, that was probably a little more enigmatic than it should have been. Then, today, I read a couple of posts criticizing Bai's notion that the Democratic Party needs "new ideas," and figured that I ought to post a couple of excerpts from my upcoming review of the book. I basically agree with the criticisms, but I don't think it's quite right to say merely that Bai thinks the party needs "new ideas" in a policy sense. He's really after bigger game:

The Argument is not really about an argument at all. In fact, it's more about the lack of an argument. It's about the angst and dejection of Democratic politicians and activists who woke up after the 2004 election and discovered that their party still didn't have what it needed to win elections. At various times Bai calls this lack a "philosophical framework," a "compelling case," or a "new paradigm," but basically it all boils down to one thing: a big new idea. Something that will define the Democratic Party in the information age and earn the loyalty — and votes — of a new generation of voters who take the past triumphs of the party for granted.

....Movement conservatism, despite its frequent and tiresome pretensions, has never really produced any big ideas. What it's produced is an intellectual superstructure designed to provide fresh justification for all its old ideas. Supply side economics was a new excuse for cutting taxes. Constitutional originalism was an excuse for cutting down the regulatory state. Neoconservatism was an excuse for old fashioned hawkery. Evangelical Christians provided ammunition for cultural traditionalism. These were all dusty ideas, but the think tanks and interest groups made them look shiny and new.

....In the end, Bai fails in his search for the holy grail. He never finds his big new idea. Bai contends that this betrays a hollowness at the core of modern liberalism, but as entertaining as The Argument is — and it's very entertaining — that may be a flaw in the book more than a flaw in the Democratic Party. As bloggers will endlessly (and correctly) tell you, liberals have loads of good ideas — certainly far more than the tired carcass of conservatism bequeathed to the country by George Bush — and if none of them truly qualifies as a New Deal-esque paradigm shift, that may be because there just isn't one to be had right now.

It's easy — maybe too easy — to toss around glib references to the "information age" and the "postindustrial state," but the fact that people put these phrases into book titles doesn't automatically make politics-as-we-know-it obsolete. Sometimes, after all, you live in an era that demands progress but not a root-and-branch transformation, and that may just be the era we live in. Bai quotes an awful lot of smart politicians and liberal thinkers repeating the mantra that Democrats need a big new idea, but it's telling that not a single one of these smart people ever actually suggests one that's compelling. Maybe that should tell us something.

Bottom line: I thought The Argument was a terrific and colorful piece of descriptive reporting about Howard Dean, the Democracy Alliance, MoveOn, and the blogosphere, and I highly recommend it — though Bai describes his subjects warts and all, so you probably won't like it much if you prefer your descriptions of the netroots to be straight-up hagiographies. That said, however, the theme that motivates the book is Bai's belief that the Democratic Party needs a big, new, paradigm-busting makeover right now. I think this is fundamentally misguided, but I also don't think it spoils the descriptive power of the book, which is considerable. Thus my description yesterday.

Kevin Drum 8:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

TACO TRIVIA....Back from lunch. I had tacos. Which reminds of something. Last week I was re-reading Youngblood Hawke, Herman Wouk's great midcentury ode to supply-side economics (moral of the story: high marginal tax rates on labor income can kill you!) and came across the following conversation. Jeanne is a Southern Californian transplanted to New York City; Gus the attorney is a Kentuckian transplanted to New York City:

Soon the lawyer sat in the living room in his shirtsleeves at Jeanne's insistence, his tie off, eating tacos from a tray. He needed a shave, and his hair was unkempt. Hawke noticed that the bristles on his face were reddish rather than blond. He looked more tired than Hawke had ever seen him, but the food and the beer brought him to quickly. "Why, these things are marvellous! What do you call them, Jeanne, tacos? I've never eaten anything like this. Delicious! Is there a restaurant in town where I can order these?"

She said, pleased, "Well, if you can find a lowbrow enough Mexican joint they'll probably have tacos, but I wouldn't endorse the contents, Gus. Better ask me, when you feel like having them again. They're easy to make."

Really? In New York City, circa 1952, tacos were so uncommon as to be practically unknown? Who knew?

Kevin Drum 5:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (160)

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By: Kevin Drum

HAPPY BLOGIVERSARY....To me. I've now been doing this for five years.

Sadly, you'll just have to take my word for this since my early blogging on blogspot has apparently been sucked irretrievably down the memory hole. But August 22, 2002, really was when it all started for me. Honest. I think I'll celebrate by having lunch.

UPDATE: Courtesy of the Wayback Machine, here are my first three days of blogging. Exciting stuff!

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By: Kevin Drum

A BRIGHT SHINING WEDGE ISSUE....Why did we invade Iraq? Henry Farrell highlights a paper today that says it's because the Republican leadership needed a new wedge issue and 9/11 gave them one:

Larry Bartels calculates that the Republicans' electoral payoff of the abortion issue has declined among non-college-educated white voters since 1996. Among this group, the impact of seven cultural wedge issues — abortion, gun control, school vouchers, gay marriage, the death penalty, immigration, and gender — on voting in the 2004 election was about two-thirds that of a comparable set of economic issues. In contrast, defense spending and military intervention ranked near the top of the list of politically potent issues. Empire became the new wedge issue, picking up where social issues left off.

....Their instinctive response to the terrorist attack was grounded in ideological sincerity but also in routine practices of wedge issue politics. From conviction and from tactical habit, successful Republican politicians had learned that polarizing on non-economic issues is a political necessity in a country where most voters want costly welfare-state policies that are at odds with the upper-income tax cuts that are the bread and butter of the Republicans' central constituency.

In other words, abortion wasn't cutting the mustard anymore anymore so the war on terror became the GOP's boffo new wedge issue for peeling off a few culturally conservative moderates into their coalition. I'm not sure why it takes a 26-page academic paper to come to this conclusion, but there you have it, complete with supporting data and 98 footnotes: Republican leaders deliberately politicized the war on terror as a way of winning elections, and for a while it worked. But, the authors say, not for much longer:

They discuss how public opinion among Bush supporters is increasingly out of touch with empirical reality, and cite to a public opinion scholar who argues that "this echoes Leon Festinger's research on the psychology of 'cognitive dissonance' in millenarian sects that believed more strongly in the impending end of the world after their prophecies had failed." [Italics mine.] [The authors] suggest that it is likely on the balance of the evidence that elite driven ideology is leading Republicans to become "so ideological in their view of foreign affairs that they are impervious to information."

"Leading"? I'd say that that the hard core of the Republican Party became impervious to information from Iraq some time ago. Just how much more evidence do we need on this score?

Kevin Drum 2:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICS....From the Washington Post today:

Democratic leaders in Congress had planned to use August recess to raise the heat on Republicans to break with President Bush on the Iraq war. Instead, Democrats have been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs on the security front, increasingly focusing their criticisms on what those military gains have not achieved: reconciliation among Iraq's diverse political factions.

....House Democratic leaders held an early morning conference call yesterday with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), honing a new message: Of course an influx of U.S. troops has improved security in Iraq, but without any progress on political reconciliation, the sweat and blood of American forces has been for naught.

Italics mine. Question: which is more infuriating, the possibility that this story is wrong or the possibility that it's right? If it's wrong, it means the Post is falsely making Democrats out to be idiots who are only now coming around to the idea that political progress is what really matters in Iraq. If it's right, then it means Democrats really are idiots who are only now coming around to the idea that political progress is what really matters in Iraq.

I feel like I'm living in cloudcuckooland here. Political progress has always been the goal in Iraq. Everyone — Baker/Hamilton, Bush, Petraeus, Gates, Democrats, Republicans, you name it — has accepted this for as long as I can remember. The whole point of getting a handle on security was to give the Iraqi government "breathing space" to reach a political accomodation, a process that's recently been going backward, not forward. The implication that this is somehow just a piece of desperate spin from Democrats trying to deny that we're making progress is preposterous.

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

MOVING THE CHESS PIECES....I've gotten a couple of emails asking why I haven't commented on recent mutterings from various quarters suggesting that the Maliki government is failing and needs to be changed. Candles in the wind include George Bush recently toning down his support for Maliki, Carl Levin telling the Iraqis in no uncertain terms that they need a new government, and Ayad Allawi kinda sorta suggesting that a coup led by Ayad Allawi would be fine thing.

Just for the record, then, the reason I haven't said anything is that these ideas are so transparently unlikely that I can't believe anyone is taking them seriously. Sure, the Maliki government is failing, but that's because the underlying dynamics of Iraqi politics are impossible to square. Mohammad himself could probably rise from the grave and be unable to unify the Iraqi government at this point.

I've written before about the possibility of new coalitions forming in Iraq and have been properly scoffed at for even bringing the subject up. But even back in June it looked as if something like what we're seeing now might happen for purely domestic reasons: namely that if someone new takes over in Iraq it gives the pro-war crowd yet another excuse to insist that change is in the air and we need to give the new guy a fair chance to prove that he can make a difference. Odds of that actually happening? Nil. The whole idea is nuts. It really doesn't deserve serious attention as a solution for any of Iraq's problems.

Kevin Drum 12:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Paul Glastris

I WILL NOT TOLERATE YOUR INSOLENCE!... Kevin disloyally sides with Sam Boyd in objecting to one aspect of the methodology behind our college rankings: namely, that the research component of the score counts the absolute number of PhDs a school awards and the total number of dollars it spends on research, thereby giving an advantage to larger schools.

We get this criticism a lot, and we're not unsympathetic. Indeed, the research component is the one thing we re-litigate internally every year when we're putting together our rankings. In the end, though, we always come down on the side of doing it this way, for two main reasons.

First, in the area of research and graduate education, we think size does matter. There's no reason to suppose that large schools would have a natural advantage over small schools in, say, recruiting and graduating low-income students. But there are reasons to believe that large schools have several legs up when it comes to doing cutting-edge research (decoding genes, exploring subatomic particles) and producing graduate students who are familiar with that research. Sure, such work can be done in small schools. It's also possible to make great films, design innovative software, or publish award-winning glossy magazines in small towns and provincial cities. But it doesn't happen nearly as often as it does in LA, Seattle, or New York, in large part because these large metro areas can support the thick labor markets and webs of interconnected companies that are required to do this kind of collaborative work easily. We assume large universities enjoy similar economies of scale in research and graduate education, especially in highly technical fields.

Might our assumption be wrong? Sure. But then the federal government and private industry, which lavish research dollars disproportionately on larger universities, are making the same mistake.

But let's say we are wrong. That gets to the second reason why we've kept the methodology the way it is: the denominator problem. Say you wanted to get rid of the bias towards large schools. To do that, you'd have to divide each institution's total PhD and research output by some other factor — say, total faculty, or total number of faculty members teaching graduate students or doing research. The problem is that schools don't report faculty and researcher numbers in consistent ways. Some only count professors, not adjunct lecturers or researchers in university-based institutes, who often do much of the graduate-level teaching. Others count researchers — say, at affiliated hospitals — who never set foot in the classroom. Judging the research-and-PhD component by the reported number of faculty would give schools with the narrowest definition of faculty an edge. Bottom line: the more we looked at the data, the harder it was to find a fair and solid method to calculate the research and graduate education score in a way that would even the playing field between small and large schools, presuming we thought that was the right thing to do, which, on balance, we don't.

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By: Kevin Drum

COMMUNITY COLLEGES....How good are community colleges compared to 4-year universities? A few years ago a group of educational reformers created an annual survey (the NSSE) that measured how well universities implemented research-proven best teaching practices, and then followed that up with a similar survey for community colleges (the CCSSE). Kevin Carey writes in our current issue that the results were surprising:

On a number of important measures, the [community] colleges on our list outperform their four-year peers. More than two-thirds of the community college students ask questions in class or contribute to class discussions, compared to only half of the four-year students. Student-faculty interaction is also better — the community college students are more likely to get prompt feedback on performance and to interact with their professors during and outside of class. And the level of academic challenge is more than comparable — the community college students were more likely to work harder than they thought they could to meet their professor's expectations.

Four-year universities generally don't release their survey results, but community colleges do and we used the CCSSE data to rank the top 30 community colleges in the country. The complete list is here. Methodology is here and here. A profile of Cascadia College, the #2 community college on our list, is here.

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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August 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON THE FPC....Is the American foreign policy community too hawkish, as Glenn Greenwald and others suggest? Joe Klein demurs:

As a member of the Council on Foreign Relations for about 15 years now, I can guarantee you that "hawkish" would come way down my list of adjectives to describe the Priesthood, well behind "geriatric," "bland," "somnolent" and "willing to talk anything to death, especially things like the coming economic slowdown in Uruguay."

....Greenwald's basic point is quite correct: the foreign policy/think tank Priesthood is as smug and hidebound as any that exists. But it is too...diplomatic...to be anything but painfully judicious — and it has, more often than not, been a brake on the foaming mouth militarism favored by the neocons.

It's that last sentence that's important. Is it true? If the foreign policy commentariat is really that bland and somnolent, after all, how much of a brake can they be?

In an update, Klein also suggests that we make a sharp distinction between "the foreign policy community" and "the guys who jabber about war on TV." That's probably a wise idea.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE RANKINGS....Over at Tapped, Sam Boyd says our college rankings are rigged. In particular, he doesn't like the fact that the research component of the score deals in absolute numbers (dollars spent, PhDs awarded), which automatically rewards big schools:

Is a school with 50,000 students and $500 million dollars in research spending doing more for the country than one that has 5,000 students and $250 million in spending? The rankings are ostensibly meant to help "alumni wanting to get a sense of their alma maters' commitment to the public interest" and "elected officials trying to think of ways to get more bang for the public bucks they're charged with spending on higher education." Yet wouldn't either of those groups care more the efficiency of the university than its overall size? Isn't a college that is small but extremely efficient at producing research more admirable than one that is vast, but only spends a small part of its resources on research?

Count me on Sam's side here. In fact, this has always been my biggest gripe with our rankings. Why penalize small schools merely for being small? It's crazy.

Care to weigh in, Paul?

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THE ARGUMENT....Via Atrios, I see that Joan Walsh has a long review at Salon of Matt Bai's new book, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics. It was a fascinating read for me. As near as I can tell, she and I had an almost (though not quite) identical reaction to Bai on substantive grounds, but despite that I loved the book and she hated it. Basically, I thought it was a terrific and insightful piece of reporting even though I thought Bai's basic theme failed to hold water, while Walsh was exasperated by the cluelessness of the book's basic theme but allowed that it also had some colorful and interesting reporting.

I guess a lot of it probably boils down to a gut reaction toward Bai's frequently snarky prose. He applies it far more to the billionaires than to the bloggers, but there's no question that the bloggers come in for their share as well. That didn't really bother me, since I take it for granted that blogs have both their good and bad sides and any honest reporting is going to expose them both. In the end I thought Bai was fundamentally sympathetic toward the netroots, warts and all, but your mileage may vary. Obviously Walsh's did.

Anyway, my review of The Argument will be in next month's issue of the magazine. I'll say more about it then.

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By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE....From the San Francisco Chronicle:

After a raucous debate about what role — if any — psychologists should play in U.S. government interrogations of terror suspects, the American Psychological Association voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to reject a measure that would have in effect banned its members from those interrogations.

Instead, the association passed a competing measure that reaffirms the organization's position against torture "and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" of terror suspects.

That's a step in the right direction, but why didn't the APA join the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association and flat-out bar their members from joining Guantanamo interrogations? Turns out there's a considerable backstory to this. You can read it here.

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IGNORANT GUITAR QUESTIONS....The LA Times has a feature story running today about the fantastic prices being fetched by vintage Gibson Les Paul Standard "Burst" electric guitars. It's all interesting stuff, but this part puzzled me:

The 1950s proved to be the golden era of electric guitars. Old World craftsmanship fused with new technologies to create instruments that have yet to be surpassed. The Burst wasn't created so much as it evolved.

....Ed King, a former guitarist with the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, acquired his first Burst in 1970 at a Virginia bar.

"I traded a guy a guitar and some cash for it," he said. "There's a real reason why these guitars are so valuable, and it goes far beyond the famous people who have owned them. They have a sound that can't be replicated."

What's the deal here? A Stradivarius is also an unmatched instrument, but that's because we genuinely don't know exactly what went into making them and we never will. In the case of the guitar, though, we do. What's more, Les Paul is still alive. If there are any questions about it, we can just ask him. The collector's value of a Burst is easy to understand, but on a purely sonic level does it really have a sound that's "yet to be surpassed"? Why? Or is that just talk?

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HYPOTHETICALS....Brian Beutler thinks it's nuts that Hillary Clinton refuses to answer hypothetical questions about whether she'd use nuclear weapons in Pakistan. And broadly speaking, I agree that politicians use the "I won't answer hypotheticals" dodge way too much. Most of the time, it's just a way to avoid taking a stand that might annoy some interest group or another.

At the same time, anyone who's taken Philosophy 101 understands that there's a real problem here. Hypotheticals can be sliced and diced a hundred different ways, and once you answer the first one you're going to get a second one sliced slightly differently and then a third and a fourth. And before long you're holding a freshman bull session on U.S. nuclear policy and which groups/regions/bad guys you might or might not be willing to nuke — all based on questions that are deliberately designed to have hidden subtleties. And let's be honest: that's just not a good idea.

There's nothing wrong with Obama taking nukes off the table in a situation where, pretty obviously, nobody thinks nukes are a good idea. And sure, Clinton's and Edwards's criticisms of Obama on this score are mostly opportunistic. That's big league politics for you. That said, there's a genie here that, in general, is probably best left in the bottle. Speaking for myself, I'd just as soon the candidates shut their yaps about nukes unless they have a major and well-considered change in the U.S. nuclear posture that they want to propose. No bull sessions, please.

BY THE WAY: Don't forget that Obama recognizes all this too. That's why after originally getting caught off guard on the Pakistan nuke question and stammering his way through an answer, he immediately backtracked and said "Let me scratch all that." He understands the issue here as well as anybody.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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BACK TO SCHOOL....U.S. News & World Report publishes its university rankings every year, and every year people complain about them. So starting in 2005 we decided to do more than just complain, and instead came out with our own rankings — based not on reputation or endowment size, but rather on how much of a contribution each university actually makes to the country. This year's #1 school? Texas A&M. Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris explains:

Surely, you might ask, we don't really think that Texas A&M is better than Princeton? Well, yes, in a way. Remember, we aren't trying, as U.S. News does, to rate how selective or academically prestigious a given school is, but rather how much it contributes to the common good. The whole point is to recognize the broader role colleges and universities play in our national life and to reward those institutions that best fulfill that role. After all, almost every major challenge America now faces — from stagnant wages to the lack of fluent Arab speakers in the federal government — could be met in part by better harnessing the power of our colleges and universities.

So instead of measuring, say, the average SAT scores of incoming freshmen, or the percentage of alumni who donate money, we rank colleges based on three criteria: social mobility, research, and service. In other words, is the school recruiting and graduating low-income students? Is it producing PhDs and cutting-edge research? And is it encouraging in its students an ethic of service? By this yardstick, Texas A&M really does outperform every other university in America (a nose ahead of UCLA and UC Berkeley).

The top ten national universities are listed below. Want to know how your alma mater did? The full list of national universities is here. The full list of liberal arts universities is here. We even have a short list of the country's top community colleges here.

Want to kvetch about our methodology? It's explained here. Enjoy!

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August 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GETTING BEYOND BILL....We all know that the press mostly ignored dissenting voices in the runup to the Iraq war. So how are they doing this time around as the hawks begin talking up a war with Iran? Dan Froomkin says not so well:

Robin Wright recently provided an overview of the drum-beating in The Washington Post. The people involved and their arguments are all too familiar: They are more or less the same so-called "experts" who enthusiastically advocated the invasion of Iraq, making similarly authoritative-sounding declarations about the uselessness of diplomacy and the easy triumph of military might.

But far from being ignored — not to mention laughed out of town — these neoconservatives are getting their message out largely unrefuted.

Froomkin's advice? There's more to life than just Bill Kristol and John McCain. Most members of the foreign policy community oppose military action against Iran, so why not invite them onto Meet the Press too? He's even got a handy list of recommendations for Tim Russert's booker.

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STEVE JOBS AND THE END OF HISTORY....Tyler Cowen points to a cute little research paper today that attempts to figure out which of AC/DC's lead singers was better, Brian Johnson or Bon Scott. "Better" has a fairly idiosyncratic meaning here, though. Long story short, Robert Oxoby of the University of Calgary ran one of those little classroom bargaining exercises so beloved of experimental economists everywhere, except this time he did one trial while playing a Johnson tune and a second trial while playing a Scott tune. Result: without getting into the gruesome details, the students were less economically efficient when the Scott tune was playing. Matt Yglesias comments:

I think the trend toward economists studying silly topics may have gone too far. Don't we still need people to look into minor questions like how do changes in income tax rates effect GDP growth?

Now, this seems like a very responsible position to take. Back to work, economists! And yet, consider this. Sure, Oxoby was just having some fun with his paper, but he still claims (though one might well be suspicious here) that his results were statistically significant. If that's true, it means that something as trivial as playing a slightly different kind of music in the background induced substantially inefficient economic behavior in his subjects. That kinda makes you wonder just how efficient all the rest of us are, doesn't it? Perhaps the iPod will eventually doom capitalism as we know it.

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THE MELTDOWN....As a nonexpert, one of the things that always astonishes me about limited financial panics is the way they almost inevitably turn into widespread panics. Bankers, those rock-jawed titans of capitalism, get scared about something or another, and once they get scared they just decide to stop loaning money to anyone. The latest example is the subprime meltdown, which has apparently caused banks not merely to panic about the subprime market, or even just the mortgage market in general, but to panic about any commercial lending. Even big, highly-rated companies are having trouble issuing corporate bonds and getting ordinary business loans at reasonable rates.

But aside from raw, adrenaline induced hysteria, why? Via Brad DeLong, Yves Smith quotes extensively from the Financial Times today to explain — sort of — what happened. Frankly, I still don't really get it, but this seems to be the key paragraph:

[The] most pernicious problem is that it is becoming clear central banks cannot resolve the biggest problem — a lack of clarity about valuations in structured credit markets and the almost complete loss of confidence that is infecting even the biggest and most diversified of conduit-type programmes.

So the bottom line is that ordinary commercial loans have increasingly been rolled up into a variety of "structured investment vehicles," and thanks to ripple effects from the subprime meltdown nobody has any confidence that they really know how to value SIVs anymore. So they just stop issuing them, and that in turn halts the ordinary commercial paper market in its tracks. Apparently the panic started in Europe and then quickly spread to the U.S.

At least, I think that's the explanation here. Read the whole thing yourself for more. If you're a high finance type and want to explain further in comments, please do. It's still all kind of murky to me.

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NEW URL ANNOUNCEMENT....Since Brian Beutler has finally succumbed to my kvetching and put me on his (weird, rotating) blogroll, it's only fair that I tell the world about his new blog address. Given the crowd he hangs around with, it's not surprising that he's named it merely "Brian Beutler" instead of something cute and old school, but what are you going to do? Kids these days. Here's the new address:

http://www.brianbeutler.com

I'm not quite sure what the picture at the top is, but it's the words that count anyway, right?

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GRUNTS vs. EXPERTS....A group of noncoms and one enlisted man take to the pages of the New York Times to explain the basics in Iraq:

Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched.

....The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force (then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks losing it all. Washington's insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made — de-Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.

Needless to say, these guys aren't saying anything that the brass doesn't know just as well. They're just willing to say it in public, that's all.

In any case, that may be the grunt's-eye view, but what about our experts in the foreign policy community? What do they think about the surge? FP magazine asked them:

More than half say the surge is having a negative impact on U.S. national security, up 22 percentage points from just six months ago. This sentiment was shared across party lines, with 64 percent of conservative experts saying the surge is having either a negative impact or no impact at all. When the experts were asked to grade the government's handling of the Iraq war, the news was even worse. They gave the overall effort in Iraq an average point score of just 2.9 on a 10-point scale. The government's public diplomacy record was the only policy that scored lower.

In other news that people are increasingly coming to their senses, 68% of FP's experts, including 54% of conservatives, agree that we should draw down the majority of U.S. forces over next 18 months and redeploy to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. That's progress.

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By: Kevin Drum

BUDGET CRANKERY....Here in the Golden State, you need a two-thirds majority to pass a budget. Republicans, as it turns out, control slightly more than a third of the seats in the Senate, and with the usual efficiency of the monomaniac have banded together and unanimously prevented a budget from being passed for the past seven weeks. I don't even quite remember what their obsession is this year, but the bottom line is that a group of 14 cranks has been able to grind all state business to a halt. Again. Including, of course, payments to nursing homes:

By the time a state budget is passed, Janet Rios will be at least $4,000 poorer. That's the 19% in interest Rios says she must pay on loans to keep her two nursing homes afloat until lawmakers can agree on a spending plan.

....The state offered to guarantee the money in a letter she could take to her bank, Wells Fargo. But "they said that is not an acceptable thing to base a loan on," she said, and classified her as a high risk, with an interest rate to match on two $100,000 lines of credit.

The state won't reimburse her for the interest. Still, she said, she had no choice but to take the bank's terms. "We have to take care of 15 residents in wheelchairs. We have people getting fed through tubes in their stomachs. Some have seizures. Some need oxygen. There are a bunch of things we have to do. Nobody cuts us any slack."

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Karl Rove's party of the little guy. The party of small business. The party of compassionate conservatism. Makes you feel tingly all over, doesn't it?

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DEMOCRACY DEMOTION....Peter Baker has a big article in today's Washington Post suggesting that the failure of George Bush's democracy promotion agenda is largely due to resistance from bureaucrats in the State Department and elsewhere. Laura Rozen is decidedly unimpressed:

The piece left out so many big examples of the contradictions — Musharraf/Pakistan, Saudi Arabia whose corrupt royal family is so close to the White House and Cheney's office, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — of where Bush has decided he isn't quite sure he really wants democratic realities to be realized, and he just may prefer the tyrant, as Cheney openly does in Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.

....How would we know if Bush were really serious about democracy? If he told Riyadh to stuff it. That's never going to happen, so we can rest assured that Bush is quite content to live with the art of the possible, with a very high degree of realism, and any griping about the bureaucrats is something journalists should know better than to accept as more than a wink-nod excuse for the president's own decisions to compromise his vision of promoting democracy when it suits him.

Serious enough for you?

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NOW AND AGAIN....McClatchy reports on the latest allegations against Iran:

For the first time, the U.S. military said on Sunday that Iranian soldiers are in Iraq training insurgents to attack American forces.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a top U.S. commander who is in charge of a large swath of Iraq south of Baghdad, believes there are about 50 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in his battlefield area, military spokeswoman Maj. Alayne Conway said.

Serious stuff. How will prime minister Nouri al-Maliki respond?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has accepted an invitation to visit neighboring Iraq, Iran's foreign minister said on Sunday, a move that would be unlikely to be welcomed by the United States.

Why yes. I imagine that is unlikely to be welcomed by the U.S. But then, Maliki doesn't really care much about what the U.S. does and doesn't welcome, does he? I'd say he's been pretty clear about that for quite a while now.

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August 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WAR FEVER....Why did support for the war seem so monolithic during the runup to the invasion of Iraq? As a conversation starter, I'd toss out four separate dynamics:

  1. The American foreign policy community has a bias in favor of military action — or, maybe more accurately, a bias against analysts who have a consistent history of skepticism toward military action. For obvious reasons this bias was amplified after 9/11.

  2. A lot of AFPC members, both liberal and conservative, supported the invasion of Iraq for principled reasons. It wasn't a matter of being cowed into agreement by an all-powerful foreign policy collective. They just flat out thought it was a good idea.

  3. Of the ones who didn't support it, many chose not to speak up. The reasons for this are probably varied and muddy: some were afraid of being wrong, some were afraid it would hurt their career aspirations, some were genuinely unsure if they were right, etc.

  4. The ones who did speak up were disproportionately ignored by TV and op-ed editors.

So what happens here? Say the normal hawkish split in the AFPC is 60-40. After 9/11, ten of the liberal internationalists become liberal hawks, making the split 70-30 in favor of war with Iraq. Not great, but still not that bad. But of the 30 dissenters, only half choose to speak up, and of those, only half get significant exposure. In terms of what the public sees, then, it's not 70-30 in favor of the war, it's more like 70-7 in favor. It's overwhelming.

Obviously all four of these dynamics added to the problem. And to some extent they fed off each other. Still, they're different things, and it's worth looking at them separately if we want to understand who and what was responsible for the post-9/11 war frenzy. Feel free to add to the list in comments.

Kevin Drum 9:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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FACTS ON THE GROUND....In a paean to old-fashioned gumshoe reporting and "the patient sifting of fact," Michael Skube writes today:

The blogosphere is the loudest corner of the Internet, noisy with disputation, manifesto-like postings and an unbecoming hatred of enemies real and imagined.

And to think most bloggers are doing all this on the side. "No man but a blockhead," the stubbornly sensible Samuel Johnson said, "ever wrote but for money." Yet here are people, whole brigades of them, happy to write for free. And not just write. Many of the most active bloggers — Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Yglesias, Joshua Micah Marshall and the contributors to the Huffington Post — are insistent partisans in political debate.

Look, we all make mistakes. But of these four examples, the first three are all professional writers and the fourth is a venture-funded site with a paid staff. If you're going to extol "thorough fact-checking and verification" over the blogosphere's "potpourri of opinion," you really ought to fact-check your assertions first. Otherwise you're just making things too easy for us.

Skube's larger point, by the way, is that the really important stories — "what lodges in the memory, and sometimes knifes us in the heart" — are the result of the kind of shoe-leather reporting that unpaid bloggers generally can't do. And that's true enough. But why make it out to be a competition? Blogs don't crowd out important reporting, after all. More often, in fact, they amplify it, making it available to a larger, more engaged audience than in the past. There's plenty of room in the world for both.

BY THE WAY: There's a serious point here too. The professionalization of the blogosphere (especially the lefty blogosphere) is a big, underappreciated story, and the characterization of bloggers as a bunch of loons ranting for free is not only silly, but woefully out of date. More reporting, please.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall emailed with Skube about his piece this afternoon and learned something interesting about how he came to make this mistake. It doesn't make either Skube or the LA Times look especially good, though.

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ROMANCE AT THE MOVIES....In a striking example of good judgment, film fans voting for "least plausible on-screen chemistry" have chosen Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen's romance in Star Wars Episode II as the worst ever. Since the courtship scenes in that movie rank as among the most embarrassing pieces of dialog and acting I've ever witnessed, kudos to the fans. They know dreck when they see it.

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August 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EXPERTS REVISITED....I'm not quite sure why Atrios unleashed the snark on Ilan Goldenberg's post (here) about how to tell a foreign policy expert from a foreign policy "expert" — though perhaps Goldenberg's VSP credentials were reason enough. In any case, his advice seems reasonable enough to at least deserve an airing. Basically, Goldenberg provides two rules of thumb:

  • "Regional experts generally tend to be more well informed than functional experts because of their narrower focus." If you want to learn about the Middle East, listen to Arabic-speaking Middle East experts, not generic terrorism experts or nonproliferation experts or whatnot.

  • "There is an inverse correlation between the number of areas of expertise listed in your bio and your actual expertise." Genuine experts have a limited number of areas on which they claim genuine expertise, and those areas are usually related. Conversely, a long, jumbled laundry list of areas may be a warning sign of someone who's spread too thin to have deep expertise in any single field.

For what it's worth, Goldenberg recommends the following non-exhaustive list of Middle East experts off the top of his head: Jon Alterman, Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch, Ray Takeyh, Steven Simon, Flynt Leverett, Vali Nasr, Steven Cook, Rob Malley, and Tony Cordesman.

"None of these rules are hard and fast," Goldenberg says. They seem like a decent provocation for further discussion, though.

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BUBBLES, BUBBLES, EVERYWHERE....Speaking of herd mentalities, the New York Times asks a pertinent question today: how is it that so many financial professionals were apparently unwilling to speak up about the subprime mortgage debacle back when it could have done some good?

The cast of characters who missed signals like the rise of delinquencies and foreclosures is becoming easier to identify. They include investment banks happy to sell risky but lucrative mortgage debt to hedge funds hungry for high interest payments, bond rating agencies willing to hope for the best in the housing market and provide sterling credit appraisals to debt issuers, and subprime mortgage brokers addicted to high sales volumes.

....Oddly, the credit analysts at brokerage firms now being pummeled were among the Cassandras whose warnings were not heeded. "I'm one guy in a research department, but many people in our mortgage team have been suggesting that there was froth within the market," said Jack Malvey, the chief global fixed income strategist for Lehman Brothers. "This has really been progressing for quite some time."

....So why did many of the smartest minds on Wall Street somehow miss the signposts that these insiders now claim to have seen coming?

In this case, at least, the answer is actually pretty clear: greed. Nobody wanted to spoil a party at which so many people were making potfuls of money.

The rating agencies probably bear an outsized share of blame here because they're supposed to be neutral. But guess what? They made lots of money on this stuff too and were reluctant to piss in the punch bowl that was responsible for rising revenues and big bonuses. In case you've forgotten the details of this sordid story, take a trip down memory lane here.

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THE VSP CLUB....Does the foreign policy community in America provide a level of technical expertise similar to that of, say, the economic policy community or the professional climate change community? Atrios says no. It's just a club designed to protect the status quo:

The "foreign policy clerisy" apparently exists to close off public scrutiny of or wider debate about America's appropriate role in the world, to limit the range of options which are "on or off the table" and which are open to public debate or discussion. They exist to monopolize debate and have veto status over club members. Members of the community are clearly chosen for the ability to perpetuate this agenda, rather than for their expertise.

True enough, perhaps, but there's a flip side to this. Via Matt Yglesias (who agrees with Atrios), comes this from Steve Clemons (who also agrees with Atrios):

Clemons...gives voice to something that I think a lot of us tend to suspect, saying he was one of the few members of [the foreign policy community] to go on television and speak against the Iraq War not because he was the only one to think it was a bad idea, but "because everyone else was a coward."

"People like me," he says, "were being fed quite a bit of inside information from people who were every bit as horrified" but very few people said anything....His perspective, he says, is that Washington is "a corrupt town." From that perspective, he says that "the political-intellectual arenas is essentially a cartel" — a cartel that's become extremely timid and risk-averse in the face of a neoconservative onslaught.

In one sense, this just confirms Atrios's point: a powerful and groupthink-oriented foreign policy community was able to silence dissidents and ensure conformity, thus providing the appearance that everyone worth listening to wanted to go to war with Iraq. Skeptics calculated that they'd better shut up if they didn't want to be blackballed forever from the pages of Foreign Affairs or Meet the Press.

And yet....something is missing here. All social communities (including the blogosphere, by the way) have tools at their disposal for stifling dissent, but what about the dissenters themselves? Were there really large numbers of skeptics who burrowed into their bunkers because they were afraid that if they spoke up they wouldn't get invited to the next CFR roundtable on the Middle East? Frankly, if that's all it took to shut them up, that doesn't speak very well for the home team. Maybe the apostates deserve some criticism too.

My own view is a little different, though. Sure, the war skeptics might have been afraid to go against the herd, but I think that was just an outgrowth of something more concrete: a fear of being provably wrong. After all, everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was a brutal and unpredictable thug and almost everyone agreed that he had an active WMD program. (Note: Please do some research first if you want to disagree with this. The plain fact is that nearly everyone — liberal and conservative, American and European, George Bush and Al Gore — believed Saddam was developing WMDs. This unanimity started to break down when the UN inspections failed to turn up anything, but before that you could count the number of genuine WMD doubters on one hand.) This meant that war skeptics had to go way out on a limb: if they opposed the war, and it subsequently turned out that Saddam had an advanced WMD program, their credibility would have been completely shot. Their only recourse would have been to argue that Saddam never would have used his WMD, an argument that, given Saddam's temperament, would have sounded like special pleading even to most liberals. In the end, then, they chickened out, but it had more to do with fear of being wrong than with fear of being shunned by the foreign policy community.

At any rate, it would be instructive to find out who these closet doves were and invite them to a Foreign Affairs roundtable to talk about why they knuckled under to the hawks prior to the war. To the extent they were willing to be honest, it would be a pretty interesting conversation. I won't be holding my breath, though.

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THIS MEANS YOU, JOE....Jonathan Finer, former Baghdad correspondent for the Washington Post, writes today that he's a little tired of grand pronouncements from pundits and politicians who parachute into Iraq for a 3-day dog and pony show:

It goes without saying that everyone can, and in this country should, have an opinion about the war, no matter how much time the person has spent in Iraq, if any. But having left a year ago, I've stopped pretending to those who ask that I have a keen sense of what it's like on the ground today. Similarly, those who pass quickly through the war zone should stop ascribing their epiphanies to what are largely ceremonial visits.

Hear hear. Click the link and read the rest.

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August 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FASHION SENSE....When I read (via Steve Benen) that President Bush had gotten annoyed at a fashion critique in the Austin American-Statesman, I knew there was only one thing to do. I had to go read it. Here are the offending paragraphs:

Bush has two distinct looks when he's in Texas: the ranch-hand man and the crisp appearance of a ranch owner. In recent months, with his sliding popularity, he's opted to look more like "Walker, Texas Ranger" than a sweaty, tough ranch hand.

"As he loses popularity, his image is more and more critical," said Sara Canaday, an Austin-based communication and image consultant. "He's being advised wisely. He'd better step it up. He wants to have this sort of bravado image when he's on that ranch."

If that's the case, it's unlikely we'll see Bush with his 2002 Crawford photo-op accessories: aviator sunglasses, grungy, sweaty T-shirt, cowboy hat, light-colored jeans and Ford F-250.

Jeez, he got mad at that? Touchy, touchy. He's lucky he's not a Democrat.

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....This is Inkblot at his magnificent, library cat best. The window of our dining room faces west, so in the afternoon it gets a nice, strong light that produces fine, manly shadows for any cat dashing enough to take advantage of it. I betcha Chris Matthews could practically smell the Aqua Velva if anyone showed him this picture.

As for Domino, she looks like she's resting comfortably outside, but what this picture doesn't show is that Mr. Aqua Velva was chasing her around the patio amid much hissing and growling this morning, and the only reason she jumped up on the table was to escape his whirling paws of death. Far from being relaxed and contented, she has her eyes focused directly on Inkblot, who's about two feet away and probably plotting his next move.

As for me, my next move is lunch. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Kevin Drum 3:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

RAW DATA....I don't really have any good reason for posting this, but maybe somebody else will find something interesting to say about it. It's data from this year's A-level tests for high school seniors in Britain, and it shows the popularity of the various tests among boys and girls. Not how well they did, merely whether they chose to take the test at all. Computing was the most male-centric test and Performing/ Expressive Arts was the most female-centric.

Make of it what you will. The weekend beckons.

UPDATE: Spreadsheet data re-sorted to put women on top, where they belong.











Kevin Drum 3:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING IS A HOAX STILL REAL....Remember the big foofaraw a few days ago when a global warming skeptic finally found a bug in some U.S. temperature calculations? 1998 was no longer the hottest year on record! The United States is cooler than it was in 1934!

All this was over a small Y2K correction [oops, see correction below] that lowered a few years of data for the U.S. by about a tenth of a degree. And what about the correction for global warming? Well, it's in the chart above.

Can't see it? That's not surprising. James Hansen of NASA, who applied the corrections to both the U.S. and global data, writes:

The effect on global temperature (Figure 2) was of order one-thousandth of a degree, so the corrected and uncorrected curves are indistinguishable.

More here. Bottom line: there's no there there. Global warming is still real, still climbing, and still not a hoax. Tell your friends.

UPDATE: It looks I might be guilty of passing along an urban legend here. It wasn't a Y2K bug that prompted the temperature corrections, it was a switch between two sources of US temperature data that happened to take place between 1999 and 2000. "There had been a faulty assumption that these two sources matched, but that turned out not to be the case," says Gavin Schmidt. More here.

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THE EMPIRE BLOGS BACK....Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, fires a shot across the bow directly into the heart of blogospheric contempt for the Very Serious People of the foreign policy community:

The lefty blogosphere, meanwhile, has gotten itself all in a tizzy over the failings of the "foreign policy community." The funny thing is...hell, I'll just come out and say it: the netroots' attitude toward professionals isn't that different from the neocons'....

The charges the bloggers are making now are very similar to those that the neocons made a few years ago: mainstream foreign-policy experts are politicised careerists, biased hacks, and hide-bound traditionalists who have gotten everything wrong in the past and don't deserve to be listened to in the future. (Take a look at pretty much any old Jim Hoagland column and you'll see what I mean.) Back then, the neocons directed their fire primarily at the national security bureaucracies — freedom-hating mediocrities at the CIA, pin-striped wussies at the State Department, cowardly soldiers at the Pentagon. Now the bloggers' attacks are generally aimed at the think-tank world.

If that doesn't earn Gideon a Wanker of the Day award, I don't know what will. The Empire has very definitely struck back.

But he's got a point: sure, the foreign policy community hasn't exactly covered itself in glory over the past few years, and a lively skepticism toward expert opinion is a healthy thing in a democracy. In an echo chamber like the blogosphere, however, skepticism can sometimes morph into yahooism, and that frankly reminds me a little too much of the current crew in the White House for comfort. Not everybody we disagree with is automatically a cretin.

In any case, FA is undoubtedly the mouthpiece of the Very Serious People community, and one thing that I think is definitely healthy is for this debate to be engaged by both sides. In this post my friend Gideon does a very bloggish job of going after my friend Matt Yglesias, which makes me poorly suited to referee this particular match, but I'd like to see more of it. Beneath the name calling, there's a genuinely meaningful debate here that's worth having. But we can only have it if the VSPs open up the castle gates and invite the barbarian hordes to join the tournament. More jousting, please.

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THE BLOGS OF WAR....Noah Shachtman reports on the results of an internal Army audit that was recently released after the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a FOIA lawsuit:

The audits, performed by the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell between January 2006 and January 2007, found at least 1,813 violations of operational security policy on 878 official military websites. In contrast, the 10-man, Manassas, Virginia, unit discovered 28 breaches, at most, on 594 individual blogs during the same period.

So: official sites cranked along at an average of 2.06 OPSEC violations per site. Milblogs had 0.05 violations per site. The conclusion is clear: blogs are an operational threat and need to be more closely controlled. Roger that.

Kevin Drum 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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By: Kevin Drum

WORTHLESS FACTOID OF THE DAY....From the LA Times this morning:

There are now twice as many Target stores within a five-mile radius of the District (four) than there are in Wyoming (two).

The "District" is a new million-square-foot shopping center that's going up on the old Tustin Marine Base a few miles from my house. In fact, that's where Marian and I were last night, shopping for a new microwave oven. Did you know that apparently every microwave oven currently manufactured uses a turntable? Million square feet or no, we couldn't find a single one that was turntable free. Maybe we need two million square feet?

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

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KARL ROVE, CHAMPION OF THE LITTLE GUY....A couple of days ago James Fallows dispensed some advice to Michael Gerson regarding his new op-ed perch at the Washington Post. Boiled down, he suggested that Gerson needed to reduce his output of vague, feel-good columns and instead write sharper, more pointed pieces that acknowledged his six years as George Bush's chief speechwriter and made that experience a core part of his narrative, warts and all.

Today Gerson did just that, writing a column about Karl Rove. Here's his pitch:

Rove's main influence on the Republican Party has not been a series of tactical innovations but a series of strategic arguments. In this way, Rove is the opposite of a cynical political operator.

....Rove argues that Republicans win as activist reformers, in the tradition of Lincoln, McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. "We were founded as a reformist party," he said in our conversation this week, "not to be against something, but to help the little guy get ahead." The models he cites are 401(k)s and the mortgage interest deduction — government policies that encouraged individual wealth and ownership.

Really? Rove is the opposite of a cynical political operator? His great passion is helping the little guy get ahead? And his evidence for this is....wait for it....the mortgage interest deduction and 401(k)s? In case you're wondering, the first is an outgrowth of the generic interest deduction that was included in the very first income tax legislation nearly a century ago (and was originally aimed at businesses, not home mortgages) and the second is a program that was accidentally created in 1978 under a Democratic administration and then put into its current form by a benefits consultant with a nose for loopholes. The IRS under Reagan didn't shoot down the idea, but that was about all they had to do with it.

This is Rove's model for the Republican Party's great activist tradition of helping the little guy? Two programs that that were (a) accidental, and (b) not proposed by Republicans in the first place? What's the problem? Couldn't he come up with any actual examples of Republicans helping the little guy?

Maybe Gerson had the right idea after all. I think the feel-good stuff may be more his cup of tea.

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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August 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

POLITICAL MELTDOWN IN IRAQ....After the Sunni parties withdrew from the Iraqi government earlier this month, President Jalal Talabani called an emergency political summit that was widely viewed as the last chance to maintain even a semblance of political comity between Shiites and Sunnis. Marc Lynch reports that it didn't work:

Al-Arabiya is reporting that the emergency political summit of Iraq's leaders has failed to produce even nominal political reconciliation. This is a devastating outcome for the Maliki government and for those Americans who hoped to have some political progress to show in the upcoming Crocker/Petraeus report. There's no other way to spin this: this summit was billed as the last chance, and it has failed.

....I thought there was at least a chance that they would cobble something together out of desperation and find ways to lure the Sunni parties back in....They did not. Instead, Talabani announced the formation of a new four party coalition in support of the current government without any Sunni representation. What's left is a government stripped to its sectarian base — the two Kurdish parties and the two major Shia parties — and a world of political hurt.

Italics mine. On a related subject, more here on the Shia takeover of the Iraqi army. It's not exactly news or anything, just further confirmation of the obvious: the eventual fate of Iraq (outside the Kurdish north) is the establishment of a Shia theocracy closely aligned with Iran. As far as I can tell, no one has even a colorable argument that things are moving in any other direction, and equally, no colorable argument that there's anything we can do to stop it. Maliki is using the U.S. military brass as useful idiots to fight his battles for him, and George Bush is his Useful Idiot in Chief.

And don't forget: every single major Republican candidate for president wants to continue our useful idiot role. They're practically duelling each other to see who can be the most fatuously naive about foreign policy. Quite a spectacle, no?

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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"STUBBY LITTLE LEGS"?....Garance Franke-Ruta, reporting from deep in the wilds of heartland Republicanism, is trying to figure out why so many GOPers are going gaga over Fred Thompson. So she asked a "leading figure in the Iowa Republican Party," who told her it's because Fred is a celebrity, Fred is a real conservative, and Fred weighs more than Hillary Clinton. Seriously:

"Can you imagine what debates are going to be like with great big Andrew Jackson-looking Fred and Hillary on her stubby little legs, stamping her feet?" Thompson, if elected, would be the tallest president ever. Republicans are not just looking for the usual John Wayne-type signifiers as they go about selecting a candidate, but thinking about who can best loom over Hillary Clinton and make her look like a shrill, small, silly little woman. Thompson's booming voice will make her "sound like Madame Defarge."

If there's any reason to support Hillary Clinton in the primaries, this is it. Contrary to this guy's delusions, Clinton would eviscerate Fred Thompson in a debate, and maybe, just maybe, this would drive the GOP's core jockocracy into such shrill unholy madness that the entire party would self-destruct in a stupendous display of mass hysteria. It's worth a try, anyway.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (139)

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OPTICS....Is the White House really trying to keep Petraeus and Crocker under wraps when they come to town in September to deliver their long-awaited report about the progress of the surge? Laura Rozen has talked to a couple of Petraeus's advisors and, like me, thinks it's a head fake, basically just a way to control the optics.

Hey, everyone's agreeing with me this morning! Must be something in the coffee.....

Kevin Drum 11:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

SPORTS AND POLITICS, TAKE TWO....Is the deep subject area expertise of sports writers a good model for political reporters to aspire to? I say no, and today a Genuine Scientist has my back:

I'm pretty much with Kevin on this, though his comment does remind me of the one good purpose served by shows like ESPN's Around the Horn: namely, as a reality check.

....It's good to watch every now and again....because it's a reminder about the real quality of punditry. When you hear Woody Paige or Jay Marriotti say something jaw-droppingly asinine about Barry Bonds or Tiger Woods or whoever, remember that these guys are at the very top of their profession.

And the next time you find yourself getting torqued off by the latest from Krauthammer, or Brooks, or Hitchens, or Dowd, or whoever, remember that they occupy exactly the same position within their profession that the yammering jackasses on Around the Horn do in theirs. And their grand pronouncements about How Things Are are exactly as meaningful and useful as Woody Paige's thoughts about instant replay.

OK, I admit this is pretty far afield. We've gone from baseball to all of sports, and from reporting to punditry. But I haven't linked to Chad in a while, and I figured this was a good chance. Go read the whole post, and then stick around and catch up on the latest doings in the world of physics. He's even got geeky polls!

Kevin Drum 11:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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PLAYING THE GAME....I'm puzzled by this:

Senior congressional aides said yesterday that the White House has proposed limiting the much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill next month of Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to a private congressional briefing.

....The skirmishing is an indication of the rising anxiety on all sides in the remaining few weeks before the presentation of what is widely considered a make-or-break assessment of Bush's war strategy....Lawmakers from both parties are growing worried that the report — far from clarifying the United States' future in Iraq — will only harden the political battle lines around the war.

Well, of course the report is going to harden the political battle lines around the war. But that's never worried the White House before. So why the ridiculous suggestion that Petraeus and Crocker testify only in closed session? They couldn't possibly have believed that anyone would agree to that.

I suppose the conclusion we're supposed to draw is that the Petraeus/Crocker report is going to be negative and the White House is getting worried about losing Republican support. But this sounds more like expectations management to me than anything else. If everyone is expecting a bombshell, a merely mediocre report will end up being greeted with relief. And at this point, relief is probably about the best the White House can hope for.

Kevin Drum 1:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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August 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PANOPTICON WATCH....Gary Farber brings to my attention a story in the Wall Street Journal about a plan to make spy satellite imagery available to civilian law enforcement. From the WSJ piece:

Access to the high-tech surveillance tools would, for the first time, allow Homeland Security and law-enforcement officials to see real-time, high-resolution images and data, which would allow them, for example, to identify smuggler staging areas, a gang safehouse, or possibly even a building being used by would-be terrorists to manufacture chemical weapons.

....Unlike electronic eavesdropping, which is subject to legislative and some judicial control, this use of spy satellites is largely uncharted territory. Although the courts have permitted warrantless aerial searches of private property by law-enforcement aircraft, there are no cases involving the use of satellite technology.

....Even the architects of the current move are unclear about the legal boundaries. A 2005 study commissioned by the U.S. intelligence community, which recommended granting access to the spy satellites for Homeland Security, noted: "There is little if any policy, guidance or procedures regarding the collection, exploitation and dissemination of domestic MASINT." MASINT stands for Measurement and Signatures Intelligence, a particular kind of information collected by spy satellites which would for the first time become available to civilian agencies.

As it turns out, spy satellites can't really do all the stuff they show on 24, so this probably isn't quite as Orwellian as it sounds. (Though, as Gary points out, if any of these satellites are gathering heat signatures from within buildings that's almost certainly illegal for domestic use.)

But look: if there's anything the NSA's domestic spying program has taught us, it's the fact that if we're "unclear about the legal boundaries" then we should set some legal boundaries. And those boundaries shouldn't be set by DHS lawyers. They should be set by Congress. That's what we pay them for, right?

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HEALTHCARE SPENDING....Does higher healthcare spending actually provide better healthcare? Maybe not. Phil Longman provides one side of the argument:

Dr. Elliot S. Fisher, a Dartmouth Medical School researcher, estimates that 30 percent of all Medicare spending goes for unnecessary operations and procedures. For instance, under Medicare, the per capita cost of treating terminally ill patients in Miami is $50,000 more than the per capita cost of treating equally old terminal patients in Minneapolis, yet the patients in Miami don't live any longer. The explanation is simply that Miami's high concentration of specialists and hospitals is overtreating the city's patients.

But maybe there's a difference between the elderly populations of Miami and Minneapolis that accounts for this. Perhaps Miami has a reputation for providing great healthcare and tends to attract sicker patients. That might explain the higher average cost.

So how do you eliminate this possible geographical bias and study only the effect of spending itself? Tyler Cowen points to a new paper that tries to do this by comparing outcomes only for people who get sick away from home and therefore receive care at a random location:

Visitors who become ill in high-spending areas have significantly lower mortality rates compared to similar visitors in lower-spending areas. The results are robust across different types of patients and within groups of destinations that appear to be close demand substitutes.

Interesting! It's not conclusive, of course, since this study looks at a wide range of illnesses while Longman focuses solely on terminal care for elderly patients. It's entirely possible that higher spending is largely wasted in terminal care but highly effective elsewhere. More study is needed!

On a (marginally) related note, though, one thing that always bugs me about these discussions is their focus on mortality. In the great scheme of things that might be worth focusing on since a large portion of our healthcare dollars are spent in the last year or two of life. But extending life is hardly the only — or even the primary — purpose of healthcare. I tore a meniscus in my knee a few years ago and ended up getting $10,000 worth of arthroscopic surgery on it. It didn't extend my life by a single minute, but it sure did improve my life. Ditto for things like dental care, antidepressives, athsma inhalers, cortisone shots, and all those infamous hip replacements. They cost a lot of money, but they don't really have much of an effect on mortality at all. Still pretty nice to have around, though.

Kevin Drum 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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PRAISING WITH FAINT DAMNS....Andrew Tobias today:

If money is no object, I think you'll really like your iPhone. I really like mine. But it (or AT&T) drops a lot of calls....

To summarize: the iPhone is expensive and fails miserably at its primary function of making telephone calls, but other than that it's really great. Sign me up!

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MORE RUDY....Hell, James Joyner is a conservative, so I'd expect him to be at least a little more sympathetic toward Rudy Giuliani's recent foreign policy manifesto than me. But no. The former Giuliani fan, after watching America's Mayor in action for a few months, has changed his opinion slightly:

I must concur in Matt Yglesias' judgment: "this man is batshit insane."

....The more I hear and read, though, the more I think Giuliani is either a charlatan or a simpleton. Either he's lying to us and we therefore have no idea what his foreign policy will be or, worse, this is what he really thinks.

....Essentially, he wants to massively increase [the] defense budget....topple every regime we don't like....wipe out every instance of non-democratic badness....diplomatic policy that finally lives up to the caricature of Bush policy....win the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere by allying ourselves even more closely with the Israelis....spend billions on surveillance systems....learn the one lesson from Vietnam that no serious student of that war has learned: We were THIS CLOSE to winning!

In a way, this essay is a test for the bipartisan foreign policy community that's taken so much abuse in the blogosphere lately. I mean, Rudy is plainly nuts. No one closer to the center than Charles Krauthammer should take this as anything more than the incoherent burblings of a national security naif. But will they say that? Or will it be considered a serious addition to the foreign policy discussion? Any bets?

Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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PROGRESS....The LA Times reports today that Petraeus and Crocker aren't actually going to write the Petraeus/Crocker report. They'll just have "input" into a report written by staffers at the White House:

The senior administration official said the process had created "uncomfortable positions" for the White House because of debates over what constitutes "satisfactory progress."

During internal White House discussion of a July interim report, some officials urged the administration to claim progress in policy areas such as legislation to divvy up Iraq's oil revenue, even though no final agreement had been reached. Others argued that such assertions would be disingenuous.

"There were some in the drafting of the report that said, 'Well, we can claim progress,'" the administration official said. "There were others who said: 'Wait a second. Sure we can claim progress, but it's not credible to . . . just neglect the fact that it's had no effect on the ground.'"

I guess it's good news to know that there are at least a few people left in the White House willing to point out that claims of progress are a bad idea if there hasn't, in fact, been any progress. On the other hand, you just know they can't hold out against Cheney forever.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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August 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FOREIGN POLICY FOR DUMMIES....I'm afraid that a substantive review of Rudy Giuliani's latest attempt to pretend he has a foreign policy is beyond me at the moment. Instead, I'll just highlight this passage from his recent Foreign Affairs piece:

The world is a dangerous place. We cannot afford to indulge any illusions about the enemies we face. The Terrorists' War on Us was encouraged by unrealistic and inconsistent actions taken in response to terrorist attacks in the past. A realistic peace can only be achieved through strength.

Was this written by a nine-year-old? Jeebus.

UPDATE: Jim Henley has the nickel summary here.

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FACTS ON THE GROUND....A friend asked me recently why I didn't post much about the surge. It's deliberate, I said: the problems in Iraq strike me as deep and fundamental, not things that are truly affected by either daily setbacks or short-term successes. Fair enough, he emailed back, but the price of avoiding day-to-day news from Iraq is the inability to get ahead of the curve and spot emerging trends.

Well, OK. Here's today's news:

Suicide bombers struck a small Iraqi religious sect in the northwestern part of the country Tuesday, killing at least 175 people and wounding 200, the Iraqi army reported.

The devastating attack on the Yazidi sect, whose adherents are primarily Kurdish, capped a day of violence marked by the bombing of a bridge north of Baghdad and the abduction of several Oil Ministry officials, including a deputy oil minister.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. military reported the deaths of nine Americans in three separate incidents, including the crash of twin-rotor Chinook helicopter. The Chinook went down in Anbar province Tuesday during a "routine post-maintenance check flight," killing five service members, the military said. The cause of the crash, which the military said occurred in the vicinity of Taqaddum Air Base, is under investigation.

Three U.S. soldiers were killed Monday by a roadside bomb in Nineveh province in the northwestern part of the country, officials said, while one was killed in combat in western Baghdad.

Crikey. Can I go back to avoiding the daily news now?

Kevin Drum 6:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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BUILDING A BETTER PRESS CORPS....How do we get a better press corps? Brad DeLong and Ezra Klein say the answer is to insist that reporters have more expertise in the subjects they cover. Today, Brad pushes this theme further by highlighting the following from one of his commenters:

I repeat my previous suggestion for the "baseball test." A reporter should not be assigned to cover subject X unless he has as good an understanding of X as a baseball writer is expected to have of baseball.

Man, does this seem backward. If you asked me what was wrong with big-league political reporting in this country, I'd say its biggest problem is that is has too much in common with big league sports writing. Reporters like Adam Nagourney and John Harris don't lack for expertise in politics, after all. They have trainloads of it. Their problem is precisely that they treat politics the way sportwriters treat baseball: as a game, in which both sides are equivalent, you're not supposed to play favorites, you favor polls and statistics over substantive (but boring!) analysis, trivia is a source of endless fascination, and a clever bon mot is irresistable regardless of whether it's actually fair or accurate.

I realize that arguing against reporters having more expertise is like arguing against apple pie, but really, lack of expertise just isn't journalism's biggest problem. It might be in the top ten, maybe even the top five, but it sure isn't #1. Priorities, people.

Kevin Drum 6:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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APPROVAL IS NOT ENOUGH....Via Michael Crowley, this excerpt from Ryan Lizza's GQ profile of Barack Obama is pretty interesting:

One day this spring, Obama's pollsters were crunching numbers, and they discovered something odd....When they compared the percentage of Democrats who said they strongly approved of Obama with the percentage who said they would vote for him, they found that the latter number was significantly lower than the former. Inside the campaign, aides dubbed this "the Gap." It was a sobering, hard number that quantified the difference between vague enthusiasm and actual votes. For Hillary Clinton, the gap is much smaller. The majority of voters who strongly approve of her also say they will vote for her.

In fact, Hillary was collecting about two-thirds of Democrats who liked her, while Obama was collecting less than half. The numbers suggested that the calculus for Hillary voters was much simpler: Democrats who liked her knew all they needed to know about her. But for Obama voters, there were questions. Was he tough enough? Did he have enough experience? Could he actually win in the general election?

This is interesting on its own terms, but I also find it interesting that apparently this was news to Obama's campaign team. This "gap" seems like the kind of thing that perhaps people like me have never heard of, but is common knowledge among political pros. But apparently not. Or at least, not among Obama's political pros.

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PAPERWORK....I don't have any reason for posting this picture, but for some reason I've been entranced with this ad ever since I first saw it, so here it is. It's from an October 1958 copy of Newsweek, and the ad copy reads:

This "magic scoreboard" makes it possible for the Hilton Reservation Offices listed below to give you, while you are still on the phone, complete reservation information at any of the 33 Hilton Hotels around the world. You will receive an immediate verbal reply on your reservation request, and a written confirmation will be mailed the same day.

There you have it: state of the art customer service circa 1958. Whether we've actually progressed since then is probably a matter of opinion.

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PAYING TRIBUTE....James Fallows recommends going to the movies to memorialize Karl Rove's departure from the White House. Which movie? No End in Sight, of course:

My wife and I watched it again this evening, while eating dinner. Pretty soon it was hard to eat. Nothing in the film is "new" in a technical sense — we all have heard that there was too little preparation for occupying Iraq, we all know that it was idiotic for Americans not to have stopped the scorched-earth looting of Baghdad, etc. But to see it all take place again, accompanied by the feckless comments of our national leaders....

I actually recommend mass viewings of this film as a way to mark Rove's departure and reflect upon the way he has changed America. He is the unacknowledged offstage actor through much of this drama, and not simply in winning reelection for the team that created the disaster. He is also there, in spirit, as the occupation staff in the Green Zone is re-populated by 23-year olds whose main qualification was service in College Republicans. In honor of Karl, check this movie out.

Consider it done. Maybe tonight.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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DARFUR AND CLIMATE CHANGE....Over at Foreign Policy, Idean Salehyan is unhappy with people who try to blame resource wars on global warming:

Few serious individuals still contest that global climate change is among the most important challenges of our time....We are no longer arguing over the reality of climate change, but rather, its potential consequences. According to one emerging "conventional wisdom," climate change will lead to international and civil wars, a rise in the number of failed states, terrorism, crime, and a stampede of migration toward developed countries.

....Dire scenarios like these may sound convincing, but they are misleading. Even worse, they are irresponsible, for they shift liability for wars and human rights abuses away from oppressive, corrupt governments....Arguing that climate change is a root cause of conflict lets tyrannical governments off the hook. If the environment drives conflict, then governments bear little responsibility for bad outcomes. That's why Ban Ki-moon's case about Darfur was music to Khartoum's ears. The Sudanese government would love to blame the West for creating the climate change problem in the first place. True, desertification is a serious concern, but it's preposterous to suggest that poor rainfall — rather than deliberate actions taken by the Sudanese government and the various combatant factions — ultimately caused the genocidal violence in Sudan. Yet by Moon's perverse logic, consumers in Chicago and Paris are at least as culpable for Darfur as the regime in Khartoum.

Salehyan highlights a problem here, though perhaps not quite the one he thinks: namely, how do you talk about underlying causes without making the causes into excuses? As a matter of empirical fact, it's arguable (though not proven, I think) that a rise in temperatures in the Indian Ocean has disrupted seasonal monsoons for the past couple of decades, leading to a decrease in rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa. And there's not much question that drought and its associated changes in land use patterns — however caused — have been among the underlying drivers of the violence in Darfur.

As a research matter, this ought to be a legitimate topic. But what happens when a politician like Ban Ki-moon talks about it? His intentions might be good (warning about the ill effects of climate change), and God knows it would be nice for Westerners to understand that global warming is about more than just endangered polar bears. At the same time, as Salehyan points out, once this enters the realm of politics it can also be used as a convenient excuse for political action (or inaction) by genocidal regimes.

It also leads to oversimplification. After all, "plausible" is not "proven." Alex de Waal, author of Famine That Kills, provides the missing details here.

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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NO MORE CRITICS?....Is it true that war critics have all been marginalized? That they no longer get invited to appear on TV? That "their temerity to poop in the punchbowl of the very serious people who failed their country made them rather unwelcome," as Atrios puts it?

Yeah, probably. But isn't the real dynamic here that.....nothing happened? That the people who show up on TV are the same people who showed up before the war? That neither being right nor being wrong really made any difference? As near as I can tell, talk show bookers just kept on inviting the same people as always and couldn't have cared less about how their war predictions panned out. I mean, it's not like Scott Ritter was getting lots of Nightline gigs before the war either, was he?

Anyway, no larger point here, really. But the anti-war folks didn't disappear from the TV. They were never really there in the first place.

Kevin Drum 11:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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August 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

ALLERGIC REACTION?....Apparently Franco-Americans relations still aren't quite what they could be:

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, on holiday in the US, attended an informal family picnic at George Bush's retreat in Maine on Saturday, sharing burgers in the name of Franco-US relations. But his wife was unexpectedly absent, blaming a severe throat ailment that prevented her making the one-hour trip from the Sarkozys' rented villa in New Hampshire.

The Bushes were sympathetic. But the fact that Mrs Sarkozy was spotted shopping with friends on both Friday and Sunday raised eyebrows in France.

"Cécilia has set a new record for making a swift recovery," a news reader said dryly on France Inter radio today.

Maybe she just doesn't like hamburgers?

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WINGNUT WARMING....Are the global warming denialists really trying to make hay over the fact that a Y2K bug caused NASA to overestimate the average U.S. temperature by 0.03 degrees in 1998? Yes they are. I guess tinfoil caps will do that to you.

And while we're on the subject of desperate wingnuts, is it just me or is the "global warming is a hoax" crowd making a comeback? My vague impression was that flat-out denialism was big in the 90s, but then slowly morphed into an argument that, sure, warming was real, but there was no real evidence that it was manmade. Then that morphed into, sure, warming is real and it's probably manmade, but policywise there's nothing much we can do about it.

But now it seems like straight-up denialism is back in vogue. Is this true? Or am I just re-noticing it lately?

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MORE ROVE....Josh Green's fortuitously timed Karl Rove profile in this month's Atlantic contains this mysterious anecdote:

Hurricane Katrina clearly changed the public perception of Bush's presidency. Less examined is the role Rove played in the defining moment of the administration's response: when Air Force One flew over Louisiana and Bush gazed down from on high at the wreckage without ordering his plane down. Bush advisers Matthew Dowd and Dan Bartlett wanted the president on the ground immediately, one Bush official told me, but were overruled by Rove for reasons that are still unclear: "Karl did not want the plane to land in Louisiana." Rove's political acumen seemed to be deserting him altogether.

I suspect the answer here is that Rove never truly had a lot of political acumen. He had campaign acumen. He was good at winning elections, but not at much else.

Green also relates a story from Dick Armey, who was not a big fan of Rove's. It's really more of a George Bush story than a Karl Rove story, but here it is anyway:

"For all the years he was president," Armey told me, "Bill Clinton and I had a little thing we'd do where every time I went to the White House, I would take the little name tag they give you and pass it to the president, who, without saying a word, would sign and date it. Bill Clinton and I didn't like each other. He said I was his least-favorite member of Congress. But he knew that when I left his office, the first schoolkid I came across would be given that card, and some kid who had come to Washington with his mama would go home with the president's autograph. I think Clinton thought it was a nice thing to do for some kid, and he was happy to do it."

Armey said that when he went to his first meeting in the White House with President Bush, he explained the tradition with Clinton and asked the president if he would care to continue it. "Bush refused to sign the card. Rove, who was sitting across the table, said, 'It would probably wind up on eBay,'" Armey continued. "Do I give a damn? No. But can you imagine refusing a simple request like that with an insult? It's stupid. From the point of view of your own self-interest, it's stupid. I was from Texas, and I was the majority leader. If my expectations of civility and collegiality were disappointed, what do you think it was like for the rest of the congressmen they dealt with? The Bush White House was tone-deaf to the normal courtesies of the office."

Quite a team, no?

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THE END OF ROVE....Obviously everyone already knows this, but in case you either just woke up (like me) or spent the morning on Mars, Karl Rove is planning to leave the White House.

Instant analysis: It doesn't really matter. History will judge Rove a colossal failure, a man who never understood how to govern and, for all his immense knowledge of polls and politics, never really understood the times he lived in. It was 9/11 that both made and broke the Bush presidency, not some kind of mystical McKinley-esque realignment. Rove was blind to that, and blind to the way Bush should have governed after 9/11. His one-track mind, in which every problem is solved by wielding the biggest, nastiest partisan club you can lift, just couldn't adapt. It's fitting that he insisted on making even his final act as calculatedly partisan as he could, announcing his resignation not through the White House press office, but in an interview with the editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Sic transit, Karl.

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August 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

OBJECTIVITY....Mark Kleiman comments on the convention of objectivity in the reporting of straight news:

A news account isn't an editorial. The ideal-type "reporter" is supposed to give "just the facts, ma'am," and not his or her own opinions.

This creates a problem when a reporter has to report false statements, especially by candidates for office. If a candidate says that the Earth is flat....should the reporter "objectively" simply report the statement, or should she add the objective fact that the world is actually round?

Mostly, reporters find it more comfortable either to copy down the b.s. and let the reader sort it out, or to find a source willing to be quoted as saying that the world is round....So the conventions of reportorial objectivity give a big advantage to liars, who get their lies reported on equal terms with the truth.

In theory, everyone agrees with this. The problem is, I haven't yet come across a single person who's proposed a workable solution. Who gets to decide whether an issue is still debatable? The reporter? But most reporters aren't subject matter experts. Would you trust the average reporter to take on this role on a daily basis? And even if we do believe reporters should be routine arbiters of the truth, how exactly should they express this? Flatly call things lies? Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line? Something more subtle?

The problem with the convention of objectivity isn't that no one recognizes that it's a problem. Everyone recognizes that it's a problem. Entire tank cars of ink have been spilled discussing it. The real problem is that so far no one has come up with a solution — a practical, functional, real-world solution — that's broadly acceptable. Any ideas?

UPDATE: Brad DeLong, the economist, says the answer is better writers. Matt Yglesias, the writer, says the answer is market competition. How about them apples?

Actually, this kind of response is pretty common. Anyone who's been involved in corporate life knows the drill: sales says the problem is that R&D needs to make better products; R&D says the problem is that marketing needs to do a better job of analyzing customer requirements; marketing says the problem is that sales needs to recruit better resellers. Meanwhile, finance wants to cut everyone's budget.

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FRIDAY'S LIQUIDITY EVENT....On Friday, as part of an effort to inject liquidity into the banking system, the Fed bought several billion dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities. Brad DeLong called this "unusual," but left hanging the question of just how unusual it was.

Stephen Spear, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, emails to say that he spoke with a friend of his at the Fed who confirmed that the Fed's action was unusual, "but not tremendously so." I thought it was an interesting email, so with his permission, here it is.


Here's what I've been told by a colleague at the Fed:

First a minor point: Most of the open market operations that the Fed does (including Friday's) are short-term collateralized loans and not outright purchases of securities. Friday's loans were all overnight (well, over the weekend, actually, maturing on Monday). So the Fed is technically not buying anything; it's been making short-term loans of cash against collateral.

The Fed accepts three categories of collateral for these loans. One is Treasury securities, another is other government agency securities, and the third is mortgage-backed securities that are federally guaranteed. Because they are federally guaranteed, the mortgage-backed securities the Fed accepts are (obviously) the very best.

Typically the interest rate on these short-term loans varies slightly depending on the type of collateral offered by the borrower. Treasuries get the lowest rate; mortgage-backed securities the highest. (The details of the last 25 OMOs, including the rates for each type of security, are available here.)

What was unusual about Friday (other than the size of the operation) is that the Fed announced it would lend against all three types of collateral at the same rate.

To quote my Fed colleague on this: "I'm not sure why we did this. I think the idea was that given the size of the operation we did not want to risk disrupting the Treasuries markets, but there may have been other motivations. ["Other motivations"? Hmmm. –ed] The expectation was that borrowers would primarily use mortgage-backed securities, since these have the lowest opportunity cost to the borrower."

On the web page above, you will see that for Friday's operations, under collateral type it just says "mortgage-backed." What this means is that mortgage-backed securities or any better securities were allowed as collateral — in other words, all three types were acceptable. Apparently, the media misinterpreted this as saying that the Fed was only accepting mortgage-backed securities, which led to the headlines about the Fed buying these things up.

So, the bottom line is that the Fed's actions on Friday were unusual, but not tremendously so. It did three OMOs instead of the usual one. The quantity of reserves lent out was larger than normal, and the way collateral was handled was slightly unusual. But the general operating procedure, including the type of collateral accepted, was completely standard. It would seem that the media is trying to make the story a lot more sensational than it truly is.

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FISA CONFUSION REVISITED....A quick note to make clear what (I think) my main source of confusion about the new FISA law has been.

Originally, FISA allowed warrantless wiretapping of any communication between two foreigners. It also allowed warrantless surveillance of "foreign powers" (including those on U.S. soil) as long as there was no substantial likelihood that the surveillance would include conversations with U.S. persons. "Foreign powers" did not include terrorist groups.

Democrats and Republicans were both willing to amend FISA to allow limited surveillance of terrorist groups, and both were willing to amend FISA to overcome technical problems that had made it difficult to monitor certains kinds of foreign-to-foreign communications. So what was the disagreement? Originally I thought it was mainly about how to fix one of the technical problems: namely, given modern communications network architecture, what procedures do you need to put in place to ensure a high likelihood that U.S. persons won't be surveilled while at the same time allowing NSA the widest possible latitude to monitor genuine foreign-to-foreign communications?

However, that appears not to be the case. Rather, NSA (and the White House) were specifically looking for new authority to monitor communications that included U.S. persons. And not just communications related to terrorism. They wanted a free hand for warrantless surveillance of any communication between foreigners and Americans that was related to foreign intelligence in any way.

And then, once Democrats reluctantly agreed to that, they decided they wanted even more: the authority to monitor any communications — including domestic calls — "concerning" foreigners. With no FISA court oversight at all.

I'm still not sure about all this. I've read a bunch of media interviews from the period when this was being debated, and the issue of broadening U.S.-to-foreign surveillance rarely comes up explicitly. Whether this was because it was hard to talk about without revealing classified information, or because no one quite understood this was really what was going on, I don't know. But the technical "glitch" appears to have been nothing more than a smokescreen as far as the White House was concerned. From the get-go, they wanted a vastly broadened ability to monitor calls on U.S. soil without a warrant, and they wanted the FISA court out of the picture.

And in the end, thanks to incompetence on the part of the Democratic leadership, they got wildly more than they had ever thought possible. There is, at this point, virtually no oversight on NSA's data collection at all. Hooray.

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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MORE FISA....Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus have a terrific tick-tock about last week's FISA fiasco in today's Washington Post, but unfortunately it's written in newspaper-ese and I'm having trouble following all its twists and turns. However, it's getting late and I'm running out of the stamina it takes to unpack their prose, so here's my initial take on what it tells us even though I'm pretty sure I'm mistaken about some of this stuff. You can read the piece and decide for yourself.

  • The problem with FISA first arose earlier this year when President Bush agreed to place NSA's spying program under the aegis of the FISA court. In March a judge "challenged" the NSA program and in May a second judge ruled "flatly" that the government needed a warrant to tap any call that came through a U.S. switch, even if the call was between two foreigners.

  • As far as I can tell, there was no argument from anyone — neither Republicans nor Democrats — about fixing this problem. Everyone agreed that NSA's ability to monitor foreign-to-foreign calls should be unfettered.

  • The administration's first proposal — naturally — was that the FISA court should be removed from the picture entirely because "you can't tell what this court is going to do." Sacre bleu! These judges think they're allowed to rule both for and against the government!

So far, so clear. Here's where it starts to get a bit murkier:

  • The first contested issue was that "[Mike] McConnell consistently sought authority for warrantless surveillance not only of terrorist suspects outside the country, but of all foreign intelligence targets." There was no such limitation in the 1978 FISA law, McConnell said, and there shouldn't be one now.

    This refers to U.S.-to-foreign communication, which was limited by the 1978 law. Wasn't it? I'm confused about what's going on here.

  • The second problem related to "the question of how to deal with surveillance of communications involving citizens and foreigners inside the country."

    This is something I hadn't heard before. If I'm parsing that sentence correctly, it means that NSA wanted the ability to tap domestic calls without a warrant if one end of the call was a "foreigner inside the country." Really?

  • A third problem related to specific language. "For instance, a Democratic bill would have authorized warrantless surveillance 'directed' at individuals reasonably believed to be outside the United States. But the administration's draft — and the one passed into law — permitted collecting data 'concerning' people reasonably believed to be outside the country. Democrats said the difference between collection efforts 'concerning' foreigners and 'directed' at foreigners could be enormous, allowing intelligence officials far greater leeway."

    Yes indeed. I imagine that lots of purely domestic communication could be said to "concern" foreigners, couldn't it? Especially if NSA itself gets to decide what "concerning" means. For the next six months at least, it sounds like NSA is free to listen to just about anything it wants without bothering to get a warrant.

  • Finally, "In a series of conference calls, McConnell continued to complain about a Democratic-backed provision limiting warrantless surveillance to foreign suspects tied to terrorist groups....Eventually the Democrats relented and presented a bill that they believed had met McConnell's requirements."

    But McConnell deemed the bill's "fine print" unacceptable, and refused to accept it. But what was that "fine print"? The fact that the bill required any FISA oversight at all? Or something else? For now, it remains a mystery.

The main thing I remain confused about is the exact extent to which communications between Americans and foreigners are still subject to warrants, or to any oversight at all for that matter. I guess the short answer is "none at all," but I'm not really sure about that. Maybe we'll find out more later.

Kevin Drum 2:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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August 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PROTEST = TERRORISM....Here's the latest from our overseas partners in the war on terror:

Armed police will use anti-terrorism powers to "deal robustly" with climate change protesters at Heathrow next week, as confrontations threaten to bring major delays to the already overstretched airport.

...."Should individuals or small groups seek to take action outside of lawful protest they will be dealt with robustly using terrorism powers. This is because the presence of large numbers of protesters at or near the airport will reduce our ability to proactively counter the terrorist act [threat]," the document says.

Note the clever excuse. No one seems to seriously believe that these protesters are either terrorists or plan to engage in terrorism, and normally any lawbreaking would be dealt with using ordinary police powers. However, the terrorism laws are said to apply here because the protesters — who object to a proposed expansion of the airport — might "reduce our ability to proactively counter" real terrorism. This is, needless to say, an excuse that could be trotted out for nearly anything more vigorous than sending a letter to the editor.

This is happening in Britain, not America, and it's not Armageddon. Still, when civil libertarian types start warning about slippery slopes, this is what they're talking about. Anyone who can't imagine how this stuff can be misused just isn't exercising their imagination.

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HACKERS....Via Bruce Schneier, Susan Landau, an engineer at Sun Microsystems, points to a little-discussed technical problem with NSA's newly broadened eavesdropping capabilities. NSA is allowed to tap only communications between foreigners, but this requirement requires the construction and widespread deployment of software that can discriminate between different kinds of calls:

To avoid wiretapping every communication, NSA will need to build massive automatic surveillance capabilities into telephone switches. Here things get tricky: Once such infrastructure is in place, others could use it to intercept communications.

Grant the NSA what it wants, and within 10 years the United States will be vulnerable to attacks from hackers across the globe, as well as the militaries of China, Russia and other nations.

....Such threats are not theoretical....U.S. communications technology is fragile and easily penetrated. While advanced, it is not decades ahead of that of our friends or our rivals. Compounding the issue is a key facet of modern systems design: Intercept capabilities are likely to be managed remotely, and vulnerabilities are as likely to be global as local. In simplifying wiretapping for U.S. intelligence, we provide a target for foreign intelligence agencies and possibly rogue hackers. Break into one service, and you get broad access to U.S. communications.

....In its effort to provide policymakers with immediate intelligence, the NSA forgot the critical information security aspect of its mission: protecting U.S. communications against foreign interception. So did Congress.

I don't know how seriously to take Landau's concerns. On the technical issues, only someone with very specialized knowledge is qualified to have an opinion. But it certainly seems worth talking about. You don't have to know very much about the particulars of communications software to know that big, complex systems always have vulnerabilities you don't expect. That's especially true when you rush the systems to completion and allow no outside oversight of them. NSA's programmers and system designers are probably smart guys, but there are a lot of smart guys in the world.

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THE BUNKER....When Rudy Giuliani finally agreed to build an emergency-command center in New York City back in 1996, the city's emergency management director recommended a site in Brooklyn: it was a safe location, had a low profile, and could be built quickly. Giuliani refused. He wanted a location he could walk to, so the command bunker ended up in the World Trade Center instead, where it was destroyed on 9/11.

But there's more. Mark Kleiman points out this paragraph from Wayne Barrett's takedown of Giuliani in the Village Voice:

Giuliani's office [in the bunker] had a humidor for cigars and mementos from City Hall, including a fire horn, police hats and fire hats, as well as monogrammed towels in his bathroom. His suite was bulletproofed and he visited it often, even on weekends, bringing his girlfriend Judi Nathan there long before the relationship surfaced. He had his own elevator.

So far the Christian right has at least semi-forgiven Giuliani for his stands on abortion and gay rights. And the philandering and the messy divorce don't seem to have hurt him all that much either. But I wonder what they'll think of this? And I wonder which mud-slinging Republican opponent will finally get desperate enough to craft a Willie Horton style attack ad darkly allowing the obvious innuendo here to flit across conservative television screens?

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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August 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING.... Yesterday afternoon, as I was idly avoiding some other work, I decided that maybe I should (a) try my hand at lolcat blogging and (b) try to do something funny about the Very Serious Person meme currently gripping the blogosphere. As a result, I spent 20 minutes waving some ribbon around in front of the cats trying to get a picture of them looking ferocious or something. Unfortunately, between the poor light, uncooperative felines, and unacceptable shutter lag on my camera, I failed miserably. Instead you get this. It'll have to do for now.

To give credit where it's due, this was inspired by reader Dara L, who sent me some lolcat-esque pictures of Tom Friedman and Anne-Marie Slaughter. They were actually pretty funny, but I decided to use real cats instead. Tradition, you know.

UPDATE: I don't have room for them on the blog, but by popular demand from Scott E, I've uploaded Dara's pictures to our server. Friedman here. Slaughter here. Enjoy!

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TACTICS vs. STRATEGY....Ryan Crocker's job in Iraq is to create political stability at the national level. David Petraeus's job is to reduce violence enough to create some breathing space for that to happen. However, he's chosen to do this mostly with local initiatives, and Marc Lynch makes the interesting argument that this is probably subverting Crocker, not helping him:

Petraeus, Bush, and their defenders argue that the local initiatives might provide the foundations for a national reconciliation down the road. Perhaps. But for now it looks more like the local initiatives, which are providing the temporary 'successes' which will justify continuing the administration's course of action, aren't just not being matched by political progress but are actually undermining the national political process. They are organizing the Sunnis outside of the state rather than fostering integration. And by heightening Sunni military weight and political expectations, these policies likely encouraged the political trainwreck we saw over the last few weeks: Sunni leaders felt emboldened to demand more, while Shia leaders worried about making concessions to a group accumulating military and political power outside their control.

I understand why Petraeus has chosen this route. Iraqi political institutions and the Iraqi state are so far gone, and so implicated in one side of the sectarian conflict, that avoiding them and starting over at the local level probably made good pragmatic sense....But this is what I meant few weeks ago when I wrote about tactics working against the strategy.

As usual, there's more at the link. It's worth reading.

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A LITTLE TOO DELPHIC....Today, the Fed announced they were purchasing $19 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities (or maybe $35 billion — it's not clear). Brad DeLong takes a question from the audience:

Q: I thought the Fed only bought and sold Federal debt. This says it is intervening directly in the mortgage-backed securities market. Is this as unusual as I think it is?

A: Yes.

OK, I appreciate a terse reply as much as the next guy, but come on. Obviously this means that the market for mortgage-backed securities has pretty much tanked, but what else? Should I start buying Krugerrands? Swiss francs? Stock in companies that make stainless steel yurts? What?

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BUBBLE-NOMICS....As a lesson in the perils of blogging while ignorant, I see that the "all bubbles are credit bubbles" stuff I was burbling ineptly about the other day turns out (of course) to be an old story. Nouriel Roubini explains the Minsky Credit Cycle:

Hyman Minsky was an American economist who died in 1996. His main contribution to economics was a model of asset bubbles driven by credit cycles. In his view periods of economic and financial stability lead to a lowering of investors' risk aversion and a process of releveraging. Investors start to borrow excessively and push up asset prices excessively high. In this process of releveraging there are three types of investors/borrowers. First, sound or "hedge borrowers"....Second, "speculative borrowers"....Finally, there are "Ponzi borrowers"....

The other important aspect of the Minsky Credit Cycle model is the loosening of credit standards both among supervisors and regulators and among the financial institutions/lenders who, during the credit boom/bubble, find ways to avoid prudential regulations and supervisions.

Yeah, that's what I was trying to say. Really.

And while we're on the subject (and because I obviously haven't learned my lesson), here is Brad DeLong on the global imbalances that drove the bubble:

It's not a global savings glut: it's a global investment shortfall.

Right. Would someone like to address this in a little more detail? Clearly there's been a huge amount of money sloshing around the system in recent years, and just as clearly it ended up financing a housing bubble because corporations and entrepreneurs around the world couldn't dream up enough productive ways to use up all that money instead — despite low interest rates and (in the U.S. anyway) reduced capital gains tax rates. This is a bad thing, no? Even with money practically free and after-tax returns high, there apparently weren't enough attractive investment opportunities to mop up all that dough. Why?

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PLAGIARIZING FROM HISTORY....I don't generally link to articles that aren't available online, but I was fascinated by one particular passage from Matthew Scully's bitter takedown in this month's Atlantic of former chief White House speechwriter Mike Gerson:

With each speech you could always predict which models he would turn to. When it was a speech on race, in would come Mike with a sheaf of heavily underlined Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. For speeches on poverty, it was time for more compassionate-conservative fervor, drawn secondhand from the addresses of Robert F. Kennedy. For updates on the war against terrorism, we could expect to see Mike's well-worn copies of JFK and FDR speeches plopped on the table for instruction, and for imitation that when unchecked (as in the second inaugural) could slip perilously close to copying.

Hmmm. Does anyone else notice an odd pattern here for the chief speechwriter to a conservative Republican president?

David Kuo, another Bush White House apostate, has a different take on this passage:

Here we have the Bush presidency — the desire for the grand story, the great narrative, the huge arc, regardless of fact. This isn't policy-making by speechwriting, it is leadership by plagiarism.

Great moments in history and great visions drive great words — think RFK standing in the back of a truck one April evening in 1968 telling the assembled crowd in Indianapolis that MLK had been assassinated. But this was not the Bush way. The Bush way was to fit what it was doing into a narrative established and given credibility by other people, other great leaders.

Well, Gerson has an op-ed spot at the Washington Post that (so far) he fills mostly with banalities, and they don't. They're probably just jealous.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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LEAKS!....Southern California is once again facing a major drought, and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has urged residents to reduce water use. So how are LA officials themselves doing? Well, it turns out that the water use histories of elected officials are public record (who knew?), and both Villaraigosa and city attorney Rocky Delgadillo have been using enough water to float a rice barge. So what's their excuse?

Villaraigosa blamed his comparatively high water use at Mount Washington on gophers that chewed holes through a rubberized drip-irrigation system installed beneath his hillside backyard to protect against erosion and to ostensibly save water...."We were unable to determine there was a leak. It's underground," he said.

....Delgadillo's backyard sprinkler system and his house have "had innumerable leaks over the past few years," said spokesman Nick Velasquez, adding that Delgadillo and his wife, Michelle, have "worked to identify and repair these leaks, and continue to recognize the importance of water conservation."

Gophers? Leaks? That was the best they could come up with? These guys are never going to make it into big league politics at this rate.

(Not that their futures look bright at the moment anyway. Between Villaraigosa's philandering and Delgadillo's wife's "accidental" personal use — and subsequent trashing — of a city vehicle, LA city politics is wide open for a newcomer right now. It could be you!)

Kevin Drum 11:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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MORE FISA....E.J. Dionne has a good tick-tock today about last weekend's FISA amendment fiasco:

Several members from swing districts — including Reps. Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Patrick J. Murphy of Pennsylvania — expressed openness to having Congress stay in town to fight if important constitutional issues were at stake.

But the moment passed. Even some very liberal Democrats worried about the political costs of blocking action before the summer recess....One anxiety hovered over the debate: If a terrorist attack happened and Congress had not given Bush what he wanted, the Democrats would get blamed for a lack of vigilance.

Note the way the incentives work here. If you pass the bill, the results are ambiguous. Sure, a lot of people will be angry, but they'll probably get over it eventually (or so the thinking goes). But if you stall the bill and a terrorist strikes, you are firmly and completely screwed. Goodbye political career. So which choice do you think a risk-averse politicians is likely to make?

This same dynamic was at work before the war, too. If you favored the war and things went south, the resulting mess would be long-term and ambiguous. There would almost certainly be a way to weasel your way out of any trouble and stay in office. But if you opposed the war and then, after the invasion went ahead over your objections, the Army discovered a serious nuclear arms program or an advanced bioweapons lab — both considered distinct possibilities at the time — you'd be out of office at the next midterm. For risk-averse politicians, the choice was obvious.

Nobody wants to risk being proved wrong in a way that's so crystal clear there's simply no chance of talking your way out of it. It's this fear that gives national security hawks the upper hand in any terror-related debate. Still.

Kevin Drum 12:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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August 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IMMIGRATION WATCH....Here's the news....

In a new effort to crack down on illegal immigrants, federal authorities are expected to announce tough rules this week that would require employers to fire workers who use false Social Security numbers.

....Experts said the new rules represented a major tightening of the immigration enforcement system, in which employers for decades have paid little attention to notices, known as no-match letters, from the Social Security Administration advising that workers' names and numbers did not match the agency's records.

And here, via Michael O'Hare, is the analysis, admittedly a little cryptic unless you click the link and read the whole thing:

The poor souls in DHS, apparently unhinged by anticipating the '08 elections, or some new horror from an IG or a Hill committee hearing, have completely forgotten (3), and worse, put a serious enforcement program into the hands of civil servants in the Social Security Administration, an army that will be as hard to call back as the sorcerer's apprentice's brooms. It's been so long since the last helpful political briefing that they have also forgotten that the employers in 3a and consumers in 3b are W's people! They're Republicans! Guys, we deplore illegal immigrant workers when Rupert needs a story — maybe even abuse a few; we don't actually deprive ourselves of them!

Like I said, click the link to find out what (3) is. Also (1) and (2).

My only demurral is that I have my doubts that this new initiative is going to be quite as thoroughgoing as Michael suggests. But we shall see.

Kevin Drum 8:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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RUDY AND THE TERRORISTS....Via Jon Chait, Wayne Barrett has a piece in this week's Village Voice that just rips into Rudy Giuliani's ceaseless and self-promoting claims that he's been immersed in terrorism issues practically from the day he entered public service. Here's a snippet:

In a July appearance at a Maryland synagogue, Giuliani sketched out his counterterrorism biography, a resume that happens to be rooted in falsehood.

"As United States Attorney, I investigated the Leon Klinghoffer murder by Yasir Arafat," he told the Jewish audience, referring to the infamous 1985 slaying of a wheelchair-bound, 69-year-old New York businessman aboard the Achille Lauro, an Italian ship hijacked off the coast of Egypt by Palestinian extremists. "It's honestly the reason why I knew so much about Arafat," says Giuliani. "I knew, in detail, the Americans he murdered. I went over their cases."

On the contrary, Victoria Toensing, the deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department in Washington who filed a criminal complaint in the Lauro investigation, says that no one in Giuliani's office "was involved at all." Jay Fischer, the Klinghoffer family attorney who spearheaded a 12-year lawsuit against the PLO, says he "never had any contact" with Giuliani or his office. "It would boggle my mind if anyone in 1985, 1986, 1987, or thereafter conducted an investigation of this case and didn't call me," he adds. Fischer says he did have a private dinner with Giuliani in 1992: "It was the first time we talked, and we didn't even talk about the Klinghoffer case then."

The dinner was arranged by Arnold Burns, a close friend of Fischer and Giuliani who also represented the Klinghoffer family. Burns, who was also the finance chair of Giuliani's mayoral campaign, was the deputy U.S. attorney general in 1985 and oversaw the probe. "I know of nothing Rudy did in any shape or form on the Klinghoffer case," he says.

The rest of the piece is long, but well worth it if you want chapter and verse on the extent of Rudy's actual involvement with terrorism prior, during, and after 9/11. Short answer: even if you squint, there's no there there.

Kevin Drum 6:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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PEER PRESSURE....This isn't a response to my post earlier this morning (it was written before mine), but Matt Yglesias takes a crack today at defining who belongs to the Very Serious People foreign policy club (and thus should be mocked and blackballed from future conversation) and who doesn't. He thinks the key issue is whether someone is gunning for a government job or not:

You find a much higher level of candor and intellectual honest when you look for experts who aren't life-long job seekers. Guys like Rand Beers and Richard Clarke and Flynt Leverett who were all professionals who had jobs until they quit them because the Bush administration was determined to steer the ship of state into the rocks. People from the academic world like Robert Pape who, unlike think tankers, really are free to publish their research even if it goes against political fashion or powerful interests also have a lot of value to add.

In the spirit of conversation, let me say that I'm skeptical of this. I suppose it's true that people who are hoping for State Department jobs in 2009 are likely to keep political considerations in mind when they speak, but I'm not sure that's really the primary dynamic here. Rather, I think it's the same dynamic that you get in any organized community: the fear of being ridiculed by other members of the community. And this fear really has nothing to do with whether you're pining away for an office in Foggy Bottom. It's just a fundamental part of being human.

Unfortunately, this doesn't really provide an algorithm for figuring who's more likely to be trustworthy and who isn't. After all, how do you figure out which people are slaves to peer pressure and which ones aren't? Beats me.

I don't really have anywhere special to go with this, since, given the current state of the art in human nature, there's no way we're going to do away with the baleful effects of peer pressure in the foreign policy community — or any other community — anytime soon. Like anyone else, I feel it myself anytime I write a post that I know my commenters and fellow bloggers are going to jump on. Still, there might be ways to ameliorate the effects of peer pressure and groupthink, or at least to cut through them a bit. It's a bit different than trying to ameliorate the effects of raw careerism, and might be worth some thinking about.

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COPYRIGHT FOLLIES....First hedge funds, now the garment district:

At a news conference yesterday at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, talked about a bill proposing to extend copyright protection to fashion...."Designers spend countless hours doing and redoing, testing, creating, thinking, and then some counterfeiter comes along and just takes it away," said Mr. Schumer. "It's stealing, plain and simple."

As much as my heart bleeds for Kate Spade, do we really want to do this? I mean, can you imagine a 70-year copyright on the little black dress? Or the specific shape of a Gucci bag? The mind reels.

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VERY SERIOUS PEOPLE....As I'm sure you all know, one of the current favorite pastimes in the liberal blogosphere is to mock the Very Serious People who currently make up our foreign policy establishment. And hell, why not? They haven't exactly been covering themselves in glory for the past few years.

The problem I've got, though, is trying to figure out who's who. Obviously Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack are charter members of the VSP club, as are Tom Friedman and Michael Ignatieff. That's easy. But who else? And who are the good guys? I bring this up because Samantha Power, presumably a safe progressive, wrote a memo a few days ago defending Barack Obama's foreign policy pronouncements. Here's part of what it said:

When asked whether he would use nuclear weapons to take out terrorist targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Barack Obama gave the sensible answer that nuclear force was not necessary, and would kill too many civilians. Conventional wisdom held this up as a sign of inexperience. But if experience leads you to make gratuitous threats about nuclear use — inflaming fears at home and abroad, and signaling nuclear powers and nuclear aspirants that using nuclear weapons is acceptable behavior, it is experience that should not be relied upon.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the diplomatic convention that says it's best for presidents (and wannabes) to stay quietly ambiguous about nuclear doctrine, the point scoring here is breathtaking. None of Obama's opponents — absolutely none of them — made "gratuitous threats" about using nuclear weapons against Pakistan. Claiming otherwise might play well with the base, but overseas it sounds like confirmation from a trusted source that American presidential candidates have been talking wildly about nuking the Hindu Kush. That really might not be such a good impression to leave.

So: what should I think of Samantha Power? She has a pretty expansive view of the use of American power overseas (bad) but believes it should be harnessed to humanitarian goals (good). She kinda sorta opposed the Iraq war (good) but only because George Bush hadn't gotten the world community on board (not so good). She speaks out against the conventional wisdom (good) but makes reckless and disingenuous charges about what other presidential candidates have said (bad).

So what's the score? And while we're at it, who else is on and off the VSP list? I need a scorecard.

POSTSCRIPT: And speaking of this, what about the diplomatic convention that says it's best for presidents to stay quietly ambiguous about nuclear doctrine? There really is something to be said for it, no? After all, once you start answering hypotheticals, it's hard to stop. And when you do stop, people are going to draw conclusions about where you've apparently drawn the line. Sometimes, it turns out, diplomatic conventions really do serve a purpose.

UPDATE: Several commenters think that Power's "gratuitous threats" line was aimed at Republicans who have implied they'd use nukes against Iran. If that's true, she sure chose an oblique way of saying it. Given the context, however, I assume that her actual target was Hillary Clinton, who responded to Obama's nuclear comments merely by saying that it was unwise to talk about nuclear doctrine at all. Whether you agree or disagree, this is the farthest thing imaginable from a "gratuitous threat."

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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THE GAME....Loretta Sanchez is my mother's representative in Congress. Here's what she told some protestors who wanted her to vote against further funding for the Iraq war:

Tuesday night Sanchez said she could not support the protesters because the $145 billion in Iraq war funding was in the same bill that would provide money to build the C-17 aircraft in California.

"I never voted for this war," she said. But "I'm not going to vote against $2.1 billion for C-17 production, which is in California. That is just not going to happen."

That's a real profile in courage. With anti-war Dems like this, I guess we're going to be in Iraq for a lo-o-o-o-ng time.

Kevin Drum 11:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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TAX CUTS!....Here's the latest desperate plea for attention from the White House:

President Bush said yesterday that he is considering a fresh plan to cut tax rates for U.S. corporations to make them more competitive around the world, an initiative that could further inflame a battle with the Democratic Congress over spending and taxes and help define the remainder of his tenure.

....The focus on economic issues on Bush's last day in Washington before leaving town today for most of the rest of the month reflected a White House strategy to confront Democrats on tax and spending issues. With most of his second-term domestic legislative agenda in tatters and his strategy in Iraq under bipartisan fire, Bush appears eager to return to familiar issues that animated the beginning of his presidency and might rally disaffected Republicans behind him again.

He really is like a windup doll, isn't he? No matter what's going on in the outside world, no matter what problems we're facing, no matter what the political situation is, you pull the cord and he says "Tax cuts!" It's like he's the Manchurian President.

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August 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PROFICIENCY....The Washington Post reports on the NAEP's first test of economics literacy among high school seniors:

Slightly more than four out of 10 12th-graders tested, or 42 percent, demonstrated proficiency in economics, the data showed.

....Economics courses are required for graduation in only about a third of the states, the study found, but 87 percent of seniors reported some exposure to economics in high school.

So here's the state of play. Among high school seniors, 35% are proficient in reading and 23% are proficient in math, but 42% are alleged to be proficient in economics.

Question: how can you be "proficient" in economics if you aren't also proficient in reading and math? Does that make any sense?

Note also that 42% of seniors are proficient in economics even though most of them have only "some exposure" to the subject. Conversely, proficiency in reading and math are lower despite 12 consecutive years of education in both subjects.

Something is wrong with this picture.

BY THE WAY: Am I the only person driven up a tree by newspaper reporters who insist on using "more than four out of ten," "close to a quarter," "nearly three-fifths," and so forth when they write stories like this? I mean, is that even remotely helpful? Is there anyone on the planet who's going to understand terms like that who doesn't also understand a simple percentage? Wouldn't it be more helpful (and more accurate) to present all the numerical data the same way so that it's easier to compare?

I've griped about this before, haven't I? Sorry. It's hard to remember sometimes.

Kevin Drum 8:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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THE PIZZA IS POLITICAL....Becks is unhappy with pizza lunches at work. She has five reasons for this, of which reasons #1-4 will either resonate with you or not depending on your own personal view of both pizza and lunch. Me, I like pizza fine for lunch. But then there's this:

  1. Social conventions dictate that women may have one slice of pizza, wait to make sure all of the men have had their fill, and only then, if there is any left, have another. Men are completely oblivious to this social convention and will eat all of the pizza.

There's no question that I'm pretty oblivious to this kind of thing. But it still seems a little dubious. However, there are 204 comments so far on this subject over at Unfogged, and they seem to be going both ways. What say the rest of you?

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SERIOUS....I don't know Anne-Marie Slaughter. Here's what I mean by this: not just that I've never met her, but that I don't even know much of anything about her views, what she's written, or, when you get right down to it, what kind of foreign policy she prefers. What little I've read of hers has always seemed so mushy and broad that it defeats any attempt to take away a sharp point.

What I do know is that she's the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She's famously moderate and, equally famously, practically the fairy godmother of foreign policy bipartisanship. She's the kind of person who gets mentioned as a possible secretary of state in a Democratic administration. Serious™ players don't come much more serious. With that in mind, here's what she had to say today over at TPM Cafe:

Here is my nightmare. The Cheneyites succeed in creating a situation in which Bush does decide to bomb Iran. Iran retaliates, as they openly threaten to do, with terrorist attacks against us on U.S. soil. That tilts the election. I can imagine a Karl Rove political calculation that would buttress a Cheney-Addington national security calculation, probably with Eliot Abrams' support.

Let me get this straight. Anne-Marie Slaughter, one of the most accomodating, serious, centrist, liberal foreign policy players on the planet, has just said she thinks it's entirely possible that the Bush administration will launch a foreign war next year in order to help the Republican Party win an election.

Apparently, being serious™ isn't what it used to be.

UPDATE: OK, I can see that I was way too clever here for my own good. Sorry about that. Obviously one interpretation of this post is that I think Anne-Marie Slaughter is nuts. I don't. What I meant to point out is that the Bush administration is now so widely viewed as unhinged and malignant that even traditionally serious™ people like Anne-Marie Slaughter think nothing of suggesting that they might well start a war with Iran for purely partisan gain. I really can't think of any past administration that would have provoked this kind of reaction from someone of AMS's stature. Journalists should take note.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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SMEAR WATCH....Muckraker extrordinaire Dan Moldea tells Howard Kurtz that Hillary Clinton is about to be Swift Boated:

"I have it on very, very good authority that major opposition research has already been conducted on Bill Clinton, and it's going to be a massive smear campaign against him," he says. A group of former intelligence officers, he says, is "going to try to cripple Hillary through Bill."

This oughta be good. What do you think the wingnuts can possibly say about Bill Clinton that's worse than the mud they slung while he was in office? I mean, he's already been accused of dealing drugs, fathering out-of-wedlock babies, murdering Vince Foster, murdering Ron Brown, and being a paid agent of the Chinese government, just to name a few. What the hell is left? Secret meetings with Osama on 9/10?

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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MERRY CHRISTMAS!....More primary madness:

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson will join with New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner tomorrow morning to announce that both states are moving up their presidential primary dates earlier into January, according to a prominent South Carolina Republican who spoke with Dawson this week. That likely will force Iowa — always protective of its party caucuses as the first-in-the-nation nominating contests — to make good on its vow to move their date from next Jan. 14 into pre-Christmas December.

Somebody please make it stop.

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BUBBLES....Brad DeLong recommends this Wall Street Journal article about the origins of the current credit bubble, and it was indeed interesting. And yet, I can't help but think that in the search for specific causes of the current subprime mortgage mess we miss the forest for the trees — again. Sure, the current housing bubble is pretty obviously credit driven, but really, aren't all bubbles? And they come along with some frequency these days, always with some shiny new reason for bankers to become irrationally exhuberant. Just in the last couple of decades we've seen bubbles in S&Ls (safe as houses!), South American countries (sovereign states never default!), junk bonds (greed is good!), dotcoms (eyeball, not profits!), and now housing (safe as houses!). Every time, it turns out that there's nothing new at all. The economy has not been fundamentally changed, risk and reward are still roughly proportional, profit still drives stock prices, and supply and demand still function about the same way they always have.

And there's one other thing that always stays the same: the object of the particular bubble that's just burst comes under increasing scrutiny, but nothing is ever done to try to address the underlying issues in the finance industry which, left to its own devices, will simply move along and create a new bubble somewhere else in a few years. Maybe there's nothing that can be done. I don't know. But I imagine that this time around home mortgages will come under some kind of mild additional scrutiny, reminding one of fables about horses and barn doors, and the titans of the finance industry will shrug, lay low for a few years, and then become mesmerized by yet another shiny new toy. If we're lucky, it will be a bubble in green technology, and maybe we'll all actually get something good out of it while it lasts. Cross your fingers.

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ALBERTO AND THE DEMS....Why won't congressional Democrats vote to impeach Alberto Gonzales? Gutlessness? Maybe. But Dahlia Lithwick favors a different theory:

As an article in today's Los Angeles Times by Peter Wallsten and Richard B. Schmitt observes, the dustup over Gonzales is proving invaluable to Democrats in an election year. The spectacle of Bush clinging desperately to an inept and untruthful AG is just about a campaign commercial in itself. Why impeach/censure/defund the hand that feeds you? The day Gonzales steps down is the day Democrats must hustle to find a new issue.

There is, however, a real cost to the Democrats' strategy of pounding away at the attorney general purely for sport.....

In the case, "real cost" is spelled "FISA." Click the link for more.

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ASTERISK WATCH....Barry Bonds has finally hit home run #756. Can we now please go back to ignoring him?

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August 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY vs. HITLERY....Over at National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez comments on Hillary Clinton's performance at tonight's Democratic debate;

In response to more than a few answers tonight — on Iraq, on China — I've said, "she sounds reasonable." If I were a normal America, I think I'd really think that. That's really hard to admit.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I'm going to unleash some snark about Lopez not being normal. And sure, that's tempting. But not tonight.

Instead, I want to make a serious point: she's right. The audience for presidential debates is still small, but obviously it's growing as we get closer to the primaries. And a lot of people who have vague, media-fueled recollections of Hillary as a conniving, ball-busting uber liberal, are starting to watch these debates and realize that.....she seems pretty reasonable. Pretty normal. Not at all the Hitlery of wingnut fame. What was all that nonsense about, anyway?

Anyway, I've mentioned this before. Just thought I'd repeat myself. An awful lot of people are effectively seeing Hillary for the first time ever following a very long hiatus, and they're not likely to see any resemblance to the fever swamp creation of Rush Limbaugh ravings from the 90s. Her negatives are never going to be as low as, say, Obama's, but I betcha they go down five or ten points by the time this is all over.

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"BONG-POSTER KOANS"....Via Atrios, I've finally found someone else who had the same reaction as me to Michael Ignatieff's recent essay in the the New York Times Magazine about why he got Iraq wrong. Here's David Rees over at HuffPo:

I'm just making my way out of the debilitating Level-Five Mind Fog that came from reading the thing....The first nine-tenths of Ignatieff's essay, far from being an honest self-examination, is a collection of vague aphorisms and bong-poster koans. It hums with the comforting murmur of lobotomy.

Everybody else has focused on the odd fact that Ignatieff seems to be claiming that his mistake on Iraq was due to his overreliance on ivory tower academia, which is indeed a peculiar assertion since most academics opposed the war. But what I noticed when I read his essay was that it seemed to be a jumble of unrelated paragraphs tossed together with no meaningful connecting thread at all. That didn't really seem worth blogging about, though, so I didn't. But if I had come up with "collection of vague aphorisms and bong-poster koans" as a description instead, maybe I would have.

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THE COURTS AND FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE....Andrew McCarthy issues a blast of outrage today over the fact that courts have any role at all in regulating how foreign intelligence is gathered. Here's his contention:

[H]ow could a FISA-court judge have come to the conclusion that foreign-to-foreign communications implicate FISA and required judicial sanction? Only by making it up. That is, only by violating the terms of FISA in favor of what the judge subjectively believed FISA should cover. The happenstance that a foreign-to-foreign communication passes through American telecom networks is irrelevant.

....As the Supreme Court explained in 1948, intelligence gathering involves "decisions of a kind for which the Judiciary has neither aptitude, facilities nor responsibility and which has long been held to belong in the domain of political power not subject to judicial intrusion or inquiry." The judiciary doesn't belong in this thicket at all.

McCarthy is having an argument with thin air. Everyone agrees that the president has virtually unlimited legal authority to monitor foreign-to-foreign communications without a warrant. Republicans agree. Democrats agree. I was just on a radio show with Jack Balkin, as fierce a critic of the Democratic cave-in on FISA as I know, and he agrees. There's literally no serious controversy over this.

The only serious question is one that McCarthy pretends never to have heard of: How do you make sure the government is only monitoring foreign-to-foreign communications in the first place? The job of the FISA court isn't to oversee foreign-to-foreign communications (McCarthy is right about that), but it is to oversee intelligence programs to make sure that's all they're monitoring. In the old days this was pretty straightforward. In the brave new world of the internet, it's a little trickier.

As McCarthy surely knows, Democrats were completely on board with modifications to FISA that would lay down rules providing the government with reasonable access to foreign-to-foreign communications that pass through American switches, while still requiring warrants if an American on American soil was involved. The Democratic amendment accomplished that. Mike McConnell agreed to it. Then the White House suddenly decided that it wasn't enough. The only plausible explanation for this turnaround is that they also want to be able to monitor domestic calls without a warrant, something that most certainly is — or used to be — within the province of the judicial system.

Bottom line: Nobody wants to handcuff the executive's ability to gather foreign intelligence, we just want judicial review to make sure it's foreign intelligence in the first place. A similar dynamic is in play at Guantanamo: nobody disputes the executive's authority to hold foreign terrorists, we just want judicial review to make sure they're terrorists in the first place. That's the whole point of the judiciary: not to infringe on the executive's legitimate powers, but to make sure they don't go beyond them. If McCarthy wants to be taken seriously, that's the issue he should address, not the phantom non-controversy he's invented out of whole cloth.

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INSCRUTABLE....James Fallows comments on the awesome power of the Chinese propaganda apparatus:

If you're actually exposed to the info-machine day by day, the image that occurs is not the suave Zhou but instead Scott McClellan, flop-sweating his way through an agonizing White House press conference.

....Here is today's illustration: official sources have been trying to claim recently that the worldwide press is happy with the government's current level of openness. The worldwide press generally disagrees. So this evening CNN International carried a story on the dispute. And just as the anchor began to say, "International complaints about media access in China have continued. From Beijing..." the screen went blank. Two minutes of white-noise on the screen, then the signal returning when it was time for the weather report.

Clever! Wily, even. And no one would possibly notice! Far more effective in damping down complaints about press controls than actually showing the report would have been. America has problems in getting its image across these days, but it's not the only one.

I have nothing special to say about this. I just thought it was a funny story.

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TEAR DOWN THAT WALL!....Good news from the New York Post:

The New York Times is poised to stop charging readers for online access to its Op-Ed columnists and other content, The Post has learned.

After much internal debate, Times executives — including publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. — made the decision to end the subscription-only TimesSelect service but have yet to make an official announcement, according to a source briefed on the matter.

Hooray! I give full credit to my two-year boycott of NYT op-eds. I knew Sulzberger would have to cave in to my awesome powers eventually.

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LIFE ON THE NET....I imagine that, like most things in life, teachers unions have both their good and bad points. That said, the fact that a few of Ezra's commenters happen to disagree with a post he wrote about teachers unions is hardly a devastating indictment of his argument. Dissenting opinions are not exactly an unknown phenomenon in the blogosphere.

However, Ezra is a whippersnapper apparatchik. That much is undeniable.

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BIG BROTHER....Liz Mair writes about the 4.2 million closed-circuit TV cameras now operating in Great Britain:

One of the things I hated most about living in London was the sense that I was under constant watch by the "authorities."....A lot of my "national security"-focused friends tell me that my hatred for, and suspicion of, CCTV is mindless since I'm not a criminal, and I have nothing to fear. That may be so, but nonetheless, I feel that constant surveillance is an infringement and that very often, in fact it leads to the "authorities" being inundated with so much information that they cannot process it — and big costs which frequently are not met.

My question is a little different. I don't have firm figures in front of me, but in London at least, the number of CCTV cameras has skyrocketed and the crime rate has skyrocketed. If the cameras genuinely helped put muggers and rapists behind bars, we might have a robust discussion about whether the additional safety justifies the loss of privacy. But if the city is no safer than it used to be, what's the point? If it's just to snap license plate pictures of cars that are illegally parked, that hardly seems worth it.

Anyway, this is a topic of frequent discussion in Britain, and the consensus of research so far seems to suggest that CCTV has, at most, only a very modest impact on crime rates. If any of my more knowledgable commenters want to chime in on this, I'd be interested in hearing more. For now, though, it seems like CCTV provides pretty low bang for the buck.

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HEART AND SOUL....Matt Yglesias says he doesn't understand why anyone cares that Mitt Romney has obviously flip-flopped on abortion for purely political reasons:

What's the specific concern about Romney's evident lack of genuine principles on these issues? He seems to me to be eminently willing to govern as a pro-lifer in terms of his judicial appointments which seems to me to be 90 percent of what's at stake here. It's true that his explanation of his position doesn't make a ton of sense, but these constitutional amendments and so forth aren't going to be enacted anyway so who really cares?

I think this misreads the situation pretty badly. Sure, Matt doesn't care about this stuff because he doesn't care about Romney's pro life bona fides in the first place. But for "values voters," the whole point of these issues is that they demonstrate your values. Even if they convince themselves that Romney will govern as a hardline pro-lifer (something that's a bit of a stretch in the first place since he's so obviously willing to compromise his principles when he's under political pressure), his position clearly shows that he's not really one of them. Not really.

Oddly enough, this also accounts for Rudy Giuliani's curious popularity among evangelicals. Rudy is also claiming he'll nominate strict constructionist judges and therefore govern as a pro-lifer — just like Romney — but in addition to that his whole persona is based on a contempt for modern liberal culture. For the values voter, this makes his promise more credible than Romney's because even though he's on the wrong side of the abortion issue, it's pretty clear that he is one of them.

Obviously both men would be better off if they were fervent, longtime abortion foes. But lacking that, who would you vote for if you had the choice? Someone who's technically on your side but whose heart isn't in it, or someone who's technically on the other side but whose heart is plainly in the right place? Probably the latter. It's the reason so many lefties supported Howard Dean in 2003 even though, the war aside, his policies were actually pretty centrist. His heart was in the right place, and that made all the difference.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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August 6, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

CHUTZPAH WATCH....There's chutzpah and then there's chutzpah. Here's the real deal from W. Thomas Smith over at NRO, complaining about the civilian backgrounds of war opponents:

[T]he majority of the most vocal of the war critics have never even worn the uniform of our country.

You gotta admit, it takes balls for someone writing for National Review to even bring up the subject. Credit where it's due.

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FINANCIAL WIZARDRY....Brad DeLong asks a question today that's also perplexed me for quite a while:

I wound up being quite unhappy with my "fear of finance" piece, because it completely ducked one of the most important questions: why the extraordinarily outsized pay packets of the high financiers? Why doesn't competition — which sorta works elsewhere in the economy — cause us to see greatly reduced earnings? We understand, we think, why celebrities get paid so much — a combination of increasing returns in distribution, being the genuinely best in the world, and being well-known for your well-known-ness. But why financiers?

What is it that blocks effective entry and competition, exactly?

If Brad doesn't know the answer, I don't feel so bad for not knowing either. But it's a good question. Why is that, say, in stock trading, the traditional fee structure got wiped out years ago in favor of hundreds of discount brokers, but the same hasn't happened in other areas? Sure, M&A (to take one example) is a business that requires a lot more smarts and a lot more connections than humdrum stock brokering, and because of that there are a limited number of firms that can do it effectively. But "limited number" is still enough that there ought to be a fair amount of competition on price. So why are M&A fees still so uniformly stratospheric? Where's the market failure?

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PLAYING THE GAME....Yesterday I suggested that the Democratic leadership got badly outplayed in last week's FISA fiasco. They were lulled into thinking that negotiations over the FISA amendment were all going fine, and then at the last minute got blindsided with new demands they weren't prepared for. With no backup strategy in place, they caved. Publius, however, disagrees:

Was it all planned? If so, that's some pretty impressive chess playing. And that's the problem with this theory. It's hard to believe that the same bunch that loses nearly 200,000 AK-47s and pistols in Iraq is capable of this sort of Kasparov-esque foresight.

....Bottom line — I think some went awry inside the White House. Some wires got crossed. Either that, or they are chess geniuses acting in extremely bad faith. Frankly, it seems obnoxious even for them to purposely go through the motions of reaching an agreement with the House Dems with the knowledge that they would never honor it. As OCSteve said in the comments yesterday: "We don't have to attribute to evil what pure [incompetence] can accomplish."

Given the choice, I generally choose incompetence over evil myself, but for two reasons I'm not sure I do in this case. First: although the Bush White House is famously incompetent in carrying out actual policy, they've long been pretty sharp when it comes to political maneuvering. This kind of ploy is Negotiation 101, and Cheney, Rove, and Addington are almost certainly pretty well versed in it. They aren't naifs.

Second, and more important: These negotiations had been going on for months, not just a few days, and Mike McConnell, who led the talks, was no junior lawyer. He's a vice admiral, a former director of the NSA, current Director of National Intelligence, broadly respected in both parties, and very plainly the person who knows the most about the technical requirements of the NSA's eavesdropping program. There's no way that he simply "misunderstood" the White House's requirements here.

What's more, the last-minute changes weren't trivial. They were big changes, the language implementing them was subtle and obviously well thought out, and the demand came literally on the last day before adjournment. If this was a screwup, it was helluva smooth looking screwup.

In any case, Publius is definitely correct in his conclusion:

That said, there was an agreement and it was broken in a particularly bad faith manner. From a policy perspective (and for game theory reasons), this sort of conduct undermines future negotiations on virtually any other issue and poisons the air. Accordingly, I fully expect to see David Ignatius, Anne-Marie Slaughter, David Broder, and others up in arms about this affront to bipartisan cooperation and common decency in the days ahead.

Um, sure, me too. I won't be waiting up nights for it, though.

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SCOTT THOMAS BEAUCHAMP FOLLOWUP....Hmmm. The Scott Thomas Beauchamp affair continues to get murkier. A few days ago the New Republic reported that five members of Beauchamp's unit had confirmed the anecdotes he included in his July "Baghdad Diarist" feature, but apparently the Army disagrees. According to Matt Sanchez, the 4th IBCT Public Affairs Office claims that after a weeklong investigation Beauchamp's anecdotes were "refuted by members of his platoon and proven to be false." Confederate Yankee has a followup email from Col. Steven Boylan, Public Affairs Officer for Gen. David Petraeus, saying that "members of Thomas' platoon and company were all interviewed and no one could substantiate his claims."

It is, of course, possible that members of Beauchamp's unit told different stories depending on who was asking the questions. Who knows? In any case, apparently this story isn't dead yet. More later if anything interesting pops up.

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SORRY, DAD....Ronald Reagan had a famously rocky relationship with some of his children, but presumably they at least voted for him when election day rolled around. Not so for Rudy Giuliani. Slate reports that Caroline Giuliani is supporting.....Barack Obama.

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PAY ATTENTION!....Conservative apostate Bruce Bartlett explains how he got snookered by George Bush:

My own excuse for not predicting the disaster that Bush's presidency has been is that I simply didn't believe a word he said during the 2000 campaign. I assumed that every word out of his mouth had been put there by Karl Rove and it was all based on polling and focus groups. I knew that Bush is a bit of a dim bulb, so it never occurred to me that he actually had any ideas of his own.

....My point is that it is very easy to get cynical about politics and think it is all a game. That was the mistake I made in 2000, along with lots of other people. If we don't want to make the same mistake again, all of us who comment on politics need to pay closer attention to what these guys are saying and make some allowance for the possibility that they actually believe it.

It's an interesting thought. What if we actually took presidential candidates at their word and quit playing the game of looking for ulterior motives in everything they do? (Polls, interest group pandering, desire to show toughness, looking forward to the general election, etc.) That would eliminate about 90% of all political punditry (and about 99% of it on TV), but I'm sure we'd all find something else to do with all that free time. It's so crazy it might work!

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FIGURING OUT FISA....PART 2....James Risen writes in the New York Times today about the recent changes to FISA:

Congressional aides and others familiar with the details of the law said that its impact went far beyond the small fixes that administration officials had said were needed to gather information about foreign terrorists. They said seemingly subtle changes in legislative language would sharply alter the legal limits on the government's ability to monitor millions of phone calls and e-mail messages going in and out of the United States.

....For example, if a person in Indianapolis calls someone in London, the National Security Agency can eavesdrop on that conversation without a warrant, as long as the N.S.A.'s target is the person in London.

Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said Sunday in an interview that the new law went beyond fixing the foreign-to-foreign problem, potentially allowing the government to listen to Americans calling overseas.

But he stressed that the objective of the new law is to give the government greater flexibility in focusing on foreign suspects overseas, not to go after Americans.

"It's foreign, that's the point," Mr. Fratto said. "What you want to make sure is that you are getting the foreign target."

....The new law gives the attorney general and the director of national intelligence the power to approve the international surveillance, rather than the special intelligence court. The court's only role will be to review and approve the procedures used by the government in the surveillance after it has been conducted. It will not scrutinize the cases of the individuals being monitored.

If I'm reading this right, the White House appears to be confirming that it believes the new law explicitly allows eavesdropping not just on foreigners talking to foreigners, but also on Americans talking to foreigners. All they have to do is claim that the real target is the foreigner and that a "significant purpose" of the eavesdropping is related to intelligence gathering. Not terrorism, mind you, just intelligence generically. What's more, they don't even have to go to the minimal trouble of making that claim to a court. They can just make it and approve it themselves.

So that's that. The government is now legally allowed to monitor all your calls overseas with only the most minimal oversight. But don't worry. I'm sure they'll never misuse this power. They never have before, have they?

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August 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FIGURING OUT FISA....I wish I could figure out what just happened over the weekend with those competing amendments to the FISA law, but it's tough to get a handle on because — duh — a lot of the details are classified. There's an awful lot of guesswork involved in trying to figure out what's going on. But here goes anyway.

The background seems to be fairly simple. What we know — or think we know, anyway — is that a FISA judge had approved a certain type of surveillance and then, a short time ago, a new FISA judge rotated in to the court, took a fresh look, and ruled against it. Everybody's best guess is that the ruling has something to do with monitoring communications in which one end is outside the United States and the other end is unknown.

Thirty years ago this problem didn't exist. The old telephone network was circuit switched, which meant that if a terrorist in Kabul called a cell in Hamburg, the call would most likely be routed on a copper wire that ran roughly from Aghanistan to Germany. It was legal to monitor this call without a warrant, but the only place to do it was outside the country. We couldn't have monitored it from inside the U.S. if we wanted to.

In a modern packet switched network things are different. When you send an email, it gets broken up into packets and tossed onto the internet, where each packet is routed to its destination. When all the packets arrive, they're put back together and you can then read the message. The same is true for an increasing number of telephone calls.

But the packets don't follow any specific path. They might go all around the world before ending up at their final destination. In particular, since the United States hosts a great deal of the world's routing capacity, an email from Kabul to Hamburg might get routed through a U.S. switch. This gives U.S. intelligence services a capability they didn't have in the past: they can eavesdrop on foreign communications by monitoring switches that are physically located within the United States.

Which is great except for one thing: it's hard to say for sure exactly what the source or destination of a packet-switched communication is. Is Kabul communicating with Hamburg (OK to surveil without a warrant) or with New York (not OK)? An IP address is suggestive, but not conclusive. Orin Kerr provides the following hypothetical:

Imagine that the government has reason to believe that an Al-Qaeda cell uses a particular Internet service provider in Kabul and a particular type of software to communicate about a terrorist plot targeting the United States. In this case, the government has probable cause to believe that monitoring the ISP would uncover terrorist intelligence information. But how broad can the monitoring be? Can the government look at all of the traffic coming to or from that ISP in Kabul? Or can it only look at traffic to or from that ISP that uses that particular software? Or only some specific portion of the traffic from that ISP using that software?

More fundamentally, is NSA allowed to monitor traffic passing through U.S. switches at all without a warrant? Even though it doesn't know for sure that all of it is taking place outside the U.S.? Can it monitor part of the traffic? None of the traffic? What algorithm is acceptable for providing a high likelihood that the monitored traffic is all outside the U.S.?

Now, this is a genuinely difficult question. Everyone agrees that it's OK to monitor foreign traffic without a warrant, and everyone agrees that it's not OK to monitor domestic traffic without a warrant. But what if, for technical reasons, it's no longer possible to say with absolutely certainty where the traffic is going to? What if it's not possible to monitor a specific person, but only a defined category of traffic?

This is the problem that the competing FISA amendments were apparently trying to resolve, and both the Democratic bill (which failed) and the White House bill (which passed) addressed it by allowing surveillance of persons who are "reasonably believed" to be outside the U.S. The FISA court would determine if NSA's procedures are reasonable. Over at Obsidian Wings, Publius spells out the difference:

The Democratic bill...and this is critical...explicitly excluded (1) communications with a U.S. person inside the United States and (2) communications in which all participants are in the United States. Thus, the bill provided protections against domestic surveillance. For these types of calls, the government needed an old-fashioned warrant. (The Democratic bill's carve-out provisions are in Sec. 105B(c)(1)(A).)

The White House bill (pdf) — soon to be law — took a much different approach. It just flatly withdrew all of this surveillance from the FISA regime. More specifically, the bill (Sec. 105A) states that any "surveillance directed at a person reasonably believed" to be outside the United States is completely exempt from FISA (i.e., it's not considered "electronic surveillance"). [Marty] Lederman spells all this out very well and in more detail, but the upshot is virtually anything — including calls inside the United States or involving U.S. citizens — is fair game.

The White House bill not only fails to prohibit domestic surveillance, but opens a huge hole for just that purpose. It exempts from FISA scrutiny any communication that is "directed at" persons reasonably believed to be outside the U.S., and then leaves this phrase undefined and therefore wide open:

For surveillance to come within this exemption, there is no requirement that it be conducted outside the U.S.; no requirement that the person at whom it is "directed" be an agent of a foreign power or in any way connected to terrorism or other wrongdoing; and no requirement that the surveillance does not also encompass communications of U.S. persons. Indeed, if read literally, it would exclude from FISA any surveillance that is in some sense "directed" both at persons overseas and at persons in the U.S.

If this is right, it means that Democrats caved in on a simple provision meant to prohibit domestic surveillance without a warrant. Under the White House bill, the only oversight against abuse of the "directed at" clause is the Attorney General's say-so, and the FISA court is required to accept the AG's reasoning unless it's "clearly erroneous." This is about as toothless as oversight comes.

Democrats pretty clearly got steamrolled on this. Until Thursday they were negotiating productively with Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and had reached agreement on the bill's language. Nobody was making a big deal out of it because things seemed to be going smoothly. Then, at the last second, the White House rejected the language its own DNI had accepted and suddenly all hell broke loose. Democrats weren't ready for it, and with Congress about to adjourn and no backup strategy in place, they broke ranks and caved in. The only concession they got was a six-month sunset in the bill.

Was this the White House's strategy all along? To lull Dems into a stupor and then hit them over the head at the last minute with brand new demands? Hard to say, but it sure looks deliberate. Democrats are going to have to learn to play in the big leagues if they want to keep up.

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ELECTORAL COLLEGE FOLLIES....I see that the latest crackpot initiative from the Golden State has now gotten national attention. Jon Alter writes in the current issue of Newsweek about a plan to carve up California's electoral votes between multiple candidates instead of awarding them all to a single winner in November:

Thomas Hiltachk, who specializes in ballot referenda that try to fool people in the titles and fine print, is sponsoring a ballot initiative for the June 3, 2008, California primary (which now falls four months after the state's presidential primary). The Presidential Election Reform Act would award the state's electoral votes based on who wins each congressional district. Had this idea been in effect in 2004, Bush would have won 22 electoral votes from California, about the same number awarded the winners of states like Illinois or Pennsylvania.

This is obviously something to be concerned about, since reliably-blue California would normally award all 55 of its electoral votes to the Democratic candidate. Under the Hiltachk plan the Democrat would probably get only 30-35 or so.

But I wouldn't panic over this yet. If the powers-that-be decide to fund the signature gathering, they can probably get this thing on the ballot. But Californians have a pretty serious case of initiative fatigue these days, and not many initiatives pass. What's worse (for Republicans, that is), it's nearly impossible to pass a blatantly partisan initiative. It's hard to think of the last one that succeeded.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has spent the last couple of years carefully honing a moderate image and he seems unlikely to endorse this effort. None of the good government groups will go along. The Democratic Party and its allies will spend boatloads of money to defeat it. The odds of success are very, very slim.

On the downside, it will force the Democratic Party and its allies to spend boatloads of money to defeat it. That may be the whole point, in fact. It often is with these things.

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DEBATING THE ROOSTERS....Of the many things I hold against conservatives, one of the less cosmically important is that so many of them seem to belong to the annoying eager-beaver wake-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn club. (Ronald Reagan was an honorable exception.) Today, in an apparent attempt to confirm my stereotype and mock my slothful ways all at the same time, the Republican candidates held an 8 am debate. Seriously. 8 am. In Iowa. On Sunday. I'll bet the media pool loved them for that.

Did anybody watch?

UPDATE: Oh jeez, the Democrats are going to do this too on August 19th? My stereotypes are shattered.

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August 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

21st CENTURY EXCUSES....YearlyKos edition:

I'd say more but my laptop is about to run out of battery power.

Buy a spare battery, folks!

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MILITARY CONTRACTORS....Lorelei Kelly, channeled by Hendrik Hertzberg, has an interesting comment about the increasing use of contractors by the U.S. military:

Ms. Kelly observed that here has been very little public debate or discussion about military privatization. In that connection, she made another point that was new to me. The military-industrial complex produced by the Cold War (which still consumes untold billions even though the weapons systems it builds are perfectly useless for the national-security threats the country now faces) was and is able to prosper in the absence of actual fighting. The purpose of piling up all those missiles targeted on the Soviet Union, after all, was to avoid using them. But the kind of privatization represented by the gun-toting Iraq war contractors has created what she called "a live war military-industrial complex" — that is, an industry that depends for its profits, even its existence, on hot wars, wars that kill people. "Free-market conservatives have given us this," she said. "In conversations with military people, it's an opening to all sorts of other issues."

Hmmm. Is this really true? It might be, but the old military-industrial complex seemed to be pretty good at nudging us into hot wars too, and it's not manifestly clear that the new one is really any better at it. Still, it's an interesting idea to noodle over. So here it is.

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HILLARYCARE....In the venture capital biz, running a business into the ground is no badge of shame. Venture capitalists know that 80% of their startups will fail, and they generally figure that someone who's failed once probably learned something from the experience and will do better the next time. If you come back asking for money for a second startup, there's a good chance you'll get it.

In politics this is much less the case, despite the fact that a very high failure rate is to be expected there too. The reason I mention this is that one of the longtime knocks against Hillary Clinton has been the failure of her 1994 healthcare plan, for which she deservedly gets plenty of blame. But what does this mean? That she's gun shy and won't ever try again? Or that she learned something from the experience and will be better able to navigate the political currents next time? Well, it turns out that someone asked her exactly that at YearlyKos and Matt Yglesias claims that, in response, she "hit the ball out of the park."

But what did she actually say? Unfortunately, I can't find a transcript or a video, but Ezra Klein summarizes it this way:

  1. It's not enough to have a plan, you need to have a political strategy, too.

  2. It's imperative that as we go forward we put together a coalition of as many groups who'll be affected — doctors nurses, hospital administrators, etc — as possible, and steel them to withstand the incredible blowback we'll get from the drug companies and insurers. In other words, you need a proactive, sympathetic coalition able to create a counterweight to industry forces.

  3. I learned a lot about the tactical end of things. I don't have the time in 90 seconds to tell you of all the mistakes I made, but being in the Senate has taught me an enormous amount about how to marry my proposal with the process. This will be my highest domestic priority.

Interesting! Her highest domestic priority. I'll be waiting to see if she elaborates at some point when she has more than 90 seconds.

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VIVE LA RÉVOLUTION!....Matt Yglesias, making the rounds at YearlyKos, comments on the mingling:

Not that anyone didn't know this already on some level, but it really was striking to get the visual of yesterday's gate crashers quite literally mingling with the dread establishment at a cocktail party. The question that nobody seems to know the answer to, though, is whether the revolution ended because the revolutionaries won, or because they sold out? The boring, but probably boring-because-accurate, answer is that it's a little of both.

That was a quick revolution, wasn't it?

BTW, if you're wondering why I'm not at YearlyKos, I don't really have a good reason. I just sort of chickened out (again). I'm not very fond of big crowds, and after dithering a bit I never quite got around to registering or buying plane tickets. Kinda dumb, I know.

However, I did contribute a piece to JONI, the journal that was supposed to accompany the convention. Sadly, though, the journal got delayed, so I'm a complete no-show, even in spirit.

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OBAMA vs. CLINTON REVISITED....Mark Kleiman thinks there's more to the Hillary-Obama foreign policy contretemps than I'm giving it credit for. I'm not so sure, but it will take a little bit of in-the-weeds explaining to say why. Here goes.

First, on the question of striking al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, Mark says:

Obama is rejecting the "our sunuvabitch" strategy of making nice to Musharraf (and, I think, the House of Saud as well). HRC says that's "naive" and "irresponsible." The MSM agreed, until the polling showed that Obama had the country with him.

I think there's a huge amount of projection going on here. Obama just flatly didn't say anything like this at all. The only thing he said was that "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." That's it. Nothing serious about reducing our support for Musharraf and certainly nothing about reducing our support for the House of Saud. That would be a massive change in U.S. foreign policy, and there's just no way that Obama intended to telegraph something that big with that one oblique sentence.

As for Hillary Clinton's response....well, there wasn't one. (The "naive" and "irresponsible" comment was from last week's spat over negotiating with foreign dictators.) Obama later made clear that he was talking about "highly targeted" strikes and apparently Clinton doesn't have a problem with that. There's just not much daylight between the two here.

Now onto the next subject: nukes. The analytical problem here is quite different: namely that AP screwed up this story pretty badly. Here's the first version of the AP dispatch that crossed the wire on Thursday (via Nexis, no link):

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday he would not use nuclear weapons "in any circumstance."

"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance," Obama said, with a pause, "involving civilians." Then he quickly added, "Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."

An hour later AP had changed the lede to add "to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan" to the end of the first sentence, but the damage had already been done. If you saw the first version of the story and didn't read the whole thing carefully, there's a good chance you thought Obama was forswearing American use of nuclear weapons very broadly. Even the second version is only a little clearer, which makes Clinton's criticism ("I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or nonuse of nuclear weapons") seem pretty reasonable. The AP story, especially the first version, implied something much wider than a simple declaration that Obama didn't plan to lob nukes into caves in the Hindu Kush.

For the record, on Friday AP finally released a transcript of the conversation:

AP: Sir, with regard to terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan ...

OBAMA: Yeah.

AP: Is there any circumstances where you'd be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and Osama bin Laden?

OBAMA: No, I'm not, uh, there has been no discussion of using nuclear weapons and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss.

AP: Not even tactical?

OBAMA: No. I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance. Uh, if involving you know, civilians... Let me scratch all that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table so...

Frankly, even now it's not entirely clear what Obama meant, and his "scratch all that" comment suggests that even he thinks discretion is the better part of valor where nukes are concerned. In the end, it was an offhand response to an unexpected question, he didn't handle it very well, his opponents took the chance to toss a few barbs at him, and that's about it. There aren't too many larger lessons here except that AP ought to be more careful about how they report stuff like this.

For now, I'm sticking with my original impression: there's way more heat than light here. In substantive terms, both Obama and Clinton agree that we should be willing to negotiate with bad actors (this was last week's argument); both support the use of targeted strikes against high-value al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan; and both seem to agree that although we aren't going to use nukes to take out those leaders, it's probably best not to say anything definitive one way or another where nuclear weapons are concerned.

Now, there's no question that Obama and Clinton are taking different tones on these questions. But I'm getting increasingly irritable that we're allowing them to get away with this. A different tone may be nice, but we aren't mind readers, and if either one of them has a serious difference of opinion with the other, they should be able to do more than tease us about it. I'm not willing to let Obama get away forever with nice speechifying that sounds fresh but doesn't really step away from liberal conventional wisdom much at all, and I'm not willing to let Clinton get away forever with tossing barbs at Obama without herself explaining if she has any substantive differences with him. Tone matters — and in foreign affairs it sometimes matters a lot — but analyzing these recent squabbles is like trying to decipher Kremlin May Day photographs. Enough's enough.

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August 3, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....It's summer, and everyone wants to be out in the backyard enjoying the sunshine and warm breezes. This demonstrates, once again, that cats are much smarter than the rest of us. Have a good weekend, everyone.

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OBEY GEORGE BUSH OR YOU WILL DIE....Did Trent Lott really suggest that DC residents should abandon the city during August unless Democrats immediately agree to pass President Bush's proposal to broaden the NSA's surveillance powers? Yes he did. It's the latest entry in the "they just don't know when to quit" sweepstakes.

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THE CLINTON-OBAMA CAGE MATCH....At the risk of going all meta on you, I have to confess that I'm fascinated by the recent foreign policy mini-fracases between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (talking with foreign leaders last week, striking Pakistan and using nukes this week). In all three cases, you practically need a microscope to suss out any substantive difference between Obama and Clinton, but both camps have nonetheless been eager to blow up all of these things into allegedly serious policy disagreements.

Why? I suppose one possibility is that any PR is good PR, so why not do what you can to get some press during the dog days? More likely, though, is that this is as good a sign as you're ever going to get of just how little difference there really is between the two. They desperately want to differentiate themselves, but they simply can't find something of any real substance to disagree about. So rhetorical trivia gets the place of honor instead.

It's better than nothing, I suppose. Still, inquiring minds want to know if there's anything serious on the foreign policy front that they disagree about. So far it's pretty hard to point to anything.

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OFF THE RAILS....Hendrik Hertzberg, comparing YearlyKos to similar convocations of his youth, remarks on just how normal everyone looks:

No one naked around here. No chaos at YearlyKos. No "sweet smell of marijuana," as the straight papers used to refer to it. No demands for revolution. No denunciations of bourgeois democracy. The Democratic National Committee Chairman is listened to respectfully and cheered enthusiastically.

I think the difference between today's left and yesterday's is partly explained by the difference between the wars that have energized them. Vietnam was, as Bob Dole might say, a "Democrat war." You couldn't protest it just by putting your energies into electing Democrats, and of course you couldn't do it by trying to elect Republicans, who liked the war even more. You had to go to the left of the Dems, and if you hadn't happened to have already acquired a moral/political compass, you might keep going till you ended up at the feet of Chairman Mao. This war is an all-Republican affair. And this generation, thank God, is perfectly content to stick with Chairman Howard.

Obviously there's something to this. In fact, there's a lot to it. But it hints at something else that gets talked about a lot in the blogosphere but still doesn't seem to have fully made it out to the rest of the world: the netroots isn't a bunch of kids. In fact, the age distribution is pretty normal. So is nearly every other distribution.

What's happening now isn't a youth revolt, and it's not powered by free love, free acid, or fear of being drafted. It's powered by a lot of bog ordinary moderate liberals who have been radicalized by George Bush and the Newt Gingrichized Republican Party. I think a lot of journalists (though I don't mean to include Hertzberg here) don't quite get this because they haven't internalized just how far off the rails the modern Republican Party has gone. Until they do, they're going to continue to misunderstand what's happening.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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ORDER IN THE HOUSE....I wonder what this was all about? "Details remain fuzzy" according to Patrick O'Connor of the Politico, so I guess there's no telling, but it would be nice to put the Tom DeLay era demonstrably behind us. Democrats ought to be able to do better.

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GOOD NEWS....An expansion of the SCHIP program is looking more and more likely:

The Senate defied President Bush on Thursday and passed a bipartisan bill that would provide health insurance for millions of children in low-income families. The vote was 68 to 31. The majority was more than enough to overcome the veto repeatedly threatened by Mr. Bush.

....The House passed a much larger bill on Wednesday, presenting negotiators with a formidable challenge in trying to work out differences between the two measures.

Still, the strong commitment to the issue by Democratic leaders virtually guarantees that they can work out a compromise before Sept. 30, when the program is set to expire. But that compromise is likely to be unacceptable to Mr. Bush.

Screaming "socialized medicine" over and over just isn't going to do the trick this time. It looks like the Senate has enough votes to stop a filibuster and override a veto, and it's possible that a moderate bill will pick up enough House support to override a veto as well. Alternatively, George Bush might come to his senses and realize that compassionate conservatives aren't supposed to veto legislation that helps poor kids get better healthcare. Maybe Laura will have a word with him.

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August 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE NETROOTS....I know there are bigger and better things to get annoyed at, but who's the fogey on the Washington Post copy desk who came up with this style edict?

'Net Roots' Event Becomes Democrats' Other National Convention

"Net roots"? Are they trying to sound like Grampa Simpson?

For the record, "netroots" gets 1,120,000 hits on Google while "net roots" clocks in at 67,900 hits. That's actually more than I would have expected, but it's still less than 6%. Time to change the style guide, folks.

Kevin Drum 10:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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IOWA AND EDUCATION....Sara Mead writes about how it's not just teachers unions that keep Democratic presidential candidates from embracing education reforms like charter schools and merit pay:

Two of the biggest obstacles are Iowa and New Hampshire....Both are very strong local control states, with incredibly weak charter school laws, no major urban areas, and low rates of poor and minority students. Iowa's one of the highest performing states in the country on NAEP, and Iowans don't take kindly to reforms that would mess with their system, and the caucus system gives undue weight to PTA-types, school board members, and other local leaders who tend to support the education status quo.

New Hampshire has one of the nation's most retrograde school finance systems and strong opposition to doing anything about that. In short, these are lousy states to be trying to sell on reforms that strengthen centralized standards and accountability, expand public school choice, or focus on equity and improving education for poor and minority kids. The huge amount of time candidates spend in these states means they get an earful from locals about the evils of NCLB, and those kind of things do have an influence on campaigns' and operatives' thinking.

And here I thought Iowa was all about the corn. Guess I was wrong.

(The rest of the post is also worth reading. Sara gets in plenty of licks at the education reformers too.)

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SCOTT THOMAS FOLLOWUP....Remember Scott Thomas Beauchamp, the soldier in Iraq who wrote a piece last month for the New Republic in which he recounted stories of (a) mocking a disfigured woman, (b) a fellow soldier who wore a piece of a child's skull he had found, and (c) another fellow soldier who ran over dogs with his Bradley fighting vehicle? Well, TNR has just put up their investigation into Beauchamp's piece, which included talking with "current and former soldiers, forensic experts, and other journalists who have covered the war extensively, [and] five other members of Beauchamp's company."

The result? They "all corroborated Beauchamp's anecdotes, which they witnessed or, in the case of one solider, heard about contemporaneously." The only error they uncovered was that one of the incidents apparently took place at an Army base in Kuwait, not Iraq.

Reaction from the right, which has been loudly insisting for a couple of weeks that the whole thing was a fake? Stay tuned. I expect that they'll find reasons to hold both Beauchamp and TNR to blame for the whole thing anyway.

UPDATE: Here's my prediction from a week ago:

Like a Kabuki story, though, you can already see how this is going to play out....Eventually some small part of Thomas's account will turn out to be slightly exaggerated and the right will erupt in righteous fervor. They were right all along! Thomas did make up his stories! The left does hate the troops!

Rarely does a prediction turn out to be quite so completely on the money.

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SICK....My review of Jon Cohn's Sick, a critique/history of the American healthcare system, is now available at the Columbia Journalism Review site. I basically praised the book, which is very good, but then added this:

The format of Sick almost begs for narratives about overseas health care systems. The book is basically a tour around America, with each of its eight chapters named after the place in which its story unfolds. So why not include chapters on Manchester, Malmö, and Marseilles, each of them highlighting in narrative form both the good and bad points of the British, Swedish, and French systems?

....In an increasingly globalized world, the war on terror has sobered us to the dangers of crippling the foreign reporting and institutional memory of all but a handful of national newspapers. Health care may be about to remind us of this in an entirely new context. Anyone for reopening that Stockholm bureau?

I wrote this before Michael Moore's Sicko was released, and was delighted to find out that going overseas was exactly what Moore had done. But I'd still like to see someone do the more wonkish book version of this.

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CIA FOLLIES....This is surely not the most important part of Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes, a history of the CIA, but it's unquestionably the funniest part of Chalmers Johnson's review:

Perhaps the most comical of all CIA clandestine activities — unfortunately all too typical of its covert operations over the last 60 years — was the spying it did in 1994 on the newly appointed American ambassador to Guatemala, Marilyn McAfee, who sought to promote policies of human rights and justice in that country. Loyal to the murderous Guatemalan intelligence service, the CIA had bugged her bedroom and picked up sounds that led their agents to conclude that the ambassador was having a lesbian love affair with her secretary, Carol Murphy. The CIA station chief "recorded her cooing endearments to Murphy." The agency spread the word in Washington that the liberal ambassador was a lesbian without realizing that "Murphy" was also the name of her two-year-old black standard poodle. The bug in her bedroom had recorded her petting her dog. She was actually a married woman from a conservative family.

Via Max, of course.

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LAFFING IT UP....THE SEQUEL....Remember that comical graph the Wall Street Journal editorial page ran a few weeks ago that tried to demonstrate a Laffer curve for corporate tax rates? The one that shot up from zero to Norway, and then headed down so steeply that it predicted the United States should get no revenue at all from its corporate income tax? You can refresh your memory on the WSJ's inanity here.

Well, here's the hilarious followup. Brendan Nyhan, who clearly has too much time on his hands, took the raw data provided by Kevin Hassett and replotted it using standard tools. The result is on the right: if you do a linear regression you get the red line, while if you apply a quadratic model you get the blue curve.

Here's the funny part: For technical reasons Brendan thinks the linear regression is more likely to be correct, but still, the quadratic model is at least defensible. And if you look at its high point, it peaks at about.....29%. Pretty much the same place as the kindergarten curve the WSJ drew.

In other words, if the WSJ editorial page had even a smidgen of intellectual honesty, they could have plotted a curve that was at least colorably defensible and would have made their same point, namely that the United States might benefit from lower corporate tax rates. But they just couldn't bring themselves to treat the data with even the veneer of respect, and the result was to undermine their own cause. A deserving fate, no?

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RUDY....I know this isn't an original observation or anything, but as I was writing the previous post about Rudy Giuliani's healthcare proposal it struck me yet again that Giuliani might be the first presidential candidate whose entire candidacy is based literally on optics and nothing else. I don't think he's offered one single substantive proposal in the entire time since he announced his candidacy. Rather, he's marketed himself exclusively as a tough guy who knows how to kick butt and put liberals in their place. That's it. There really isn't anything more to the man.

Like I said, nothing original about this. But still. The purity of his persona-based candidacy is almost majestic.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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RUDY'S PLAN....Ezra Klein correctly analyzes the laughable healthcare "plan" offered up by Rudy Giuliani on Tuesday:

Just about all you need to know about Giuliani's thoughtfulness on the issue can be summed up by the following: In the speech introducing and detailing his new health care proposal, Giuliani refers to the "Democrats" six times. "Single-payer" is said eight times. "Socialized medicine," or some variant thereof, makes nine appearances. "Uninsured" is never uttered — not once.

If you're interested in more, Ezra also provides a technical explanation of why Rudy's plan is meaningless (tax deductions don't help the poor, who don't pay taxes in the first place, and the incentives are too small to make much difference to middle class taxpayers who do pay taxes). For another perspective, Jon Cohn offers his take here.

However, I thought the (unintentionally) funniest take came from Joe Klein yesterday, though I didn't get around to blogging about it. Klein writes that a tax-credit-based system might be OK but that Giuliani's plan fails because it doesn't require insurance companies to cover everyone, doesn't require universal participation, and isn't progressive enough to benefit the poor. Aside from the fact that Giuliani's plan doesn't involve tax credits anyway, that's sort of like saying a car is OK except that it doesn't have a transmission, doesn't steer properly, and has to be pushed whenever there's a headwind.

Basically, though, Ezra has the right take on this. The remarkable thing about Giuliani's plan isn't in the details anyway. It's that it doesn't even make a serious pretense of being an actual solution to any of our current healthcare problems. Even taken on its own terms, it wouldn't expand coverage, it wouldn't help the poor, it wouldn't contain costs, and it wouldn't improve care. It literally wouldn't do anything except provide a tax break for the wealthy, the only people who would benefit from an increased tax deduction.

Funny how that works.

Kevin Drum 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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OBAMA ON TERROR....I suggested yesterday that some of Barack Obama's other comments from his big foreign policy speech were actually more interesting than his tough talk on Pakistan — but then I failed to follow that up by engaging with some of those other comments. Maybe I'll do that later today. In the meantime, Matt Yglesias offers up this possibility:

More interesting is that Obama, unlike some of the reporters who covered the speech, refused to frame his determination to fight al-Qaida as a contrast with his dovish views on Iraq. Rather....he says that "by refusing the end the war in Iraq, President Bush is giving the terrorists what they really want, and what the Congress voted to give then in 2002: a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Opposition to the war in Iraq, then and now, in other words, is part and parcel of a commitment to a serious struggle against al-Qaida.

This is precisely right, and it's precisely Obama's ability to move the conversation in this direction that's his campaign's most underappreciated asset. It's not just that [Hillary] Clinton took a different position on the authorization vote four and a half years ago. Rather, Obama, having established more space between his views and those of the Republicans can, in effect, punch much harder, accusing conservatives of radically misconceiving the problem.

I figure that the most interesting thing to do with Obama's speech is to go through and try to figure out which parts are unique: that is, which parts couldn't plausibly have been delivered by one of the other candidates. I don't think there are very many, but Matt may be right that this is one of them. More later.

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THE SURGE....Michael Crowley reports on a lunch he attended with an unnamed but "prominent" Republican senator on Wednesday:

On Iraq, this senator said he expects that, come September and the Petraeus-Crocker report, the White House will announce "a transition to a new approach." He thinks that will involve a non-trivial drawdown of troops, and a returned emphasis to training Iraqi forces, though he wasn't too clear beyond that. He also said such a shift would head off any possible collapse in congressional GOP support for the war.

Obviously this has to be taken with a grain of salt since there's no telling how much this unnamed senator is actually privy to. If he's right, however, it's a pretty stunning example of just how unseriously the Republican Party takes national security these days.

Think about it. When September rolls around Petraeus and Crocker plainly won't be able to report any political progress in Iraq. After all, there hasn't been any yet, and the Iraqi parliament is on vacation for the next month. What's more, even on the military front Petraeus will be unable to claim anything but the slimmest progress. There's simply no credible way in which anyone will be able to claim that the surge has made enough progress on any front that its job is done and it can start to be wound down. And yet, not only does our unnamed senator think that's what the White House will announce, he also thinks this "new approach" charade will successfully pacify the brewing Republican revolt against the war.

Now, this senator may or may not know what Bush is intending to do. But presumably he knows Senate Republicans pretty well, and his assessment of his colleagues is damning. Elaborate rationales aside (and I'm sure we'll hear them by the bucketload), for anyone who cares about the actual reality of Iraq there's simply no coherent argument for supporting the surge in March and then, six months later, supporting its end even though it plainly hasn't accomplished its goals. You can only do that if you consider Iraq a political game rather than a serious foreign policy problem. Apparently they do.

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August 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PROS AND CONS....Did Mitt Romney actually make a video in which his family pretends to counsel him on whether to run for president? Yes he did. The result is either hilarious or nausea inducing, depending on your mood at the moment.

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PAKISTAN....Perhaps unfortunately, the part of Barack Obama's big foreign policy speech today that's getting the most attention is his tough talk toward Pakistan:

The first step must be getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan....I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.

I know I'm going to regret saying this, but I think John Podhoretz hits pretty close to the mark here:

This country is never — never — going to stage a major military action against Pakistan.....Every serious person knows the United States won't invade Pakistan, even with Special Forces — since the reason we cancelled the proposed action against Al Qaeda in 2005 is that it was going to take many hundreds of American troops to do it. This isn't 15 people dropping like ninjas in the darkness. It's an invasion, with helicopters and supply lines and routes of ingress and escape. It would have had unforseen and unforeseeable consequences, but it would have been reasonable to assume the Pakistanis would have turned violently against the United States and hurtled toward Islamic fundamentalist control.

....Obama is using Pakistan to talk tough, in the full knowledge that he will never actually pull the trigger.

Obviously there may be occasions where a single cruise missile or a small covert ops mission can accomplish something. But generally speaking, it's fanciful to think that these kind of operations are going to have any serious impact on a lawless, treacherous, famously uncontrollable area of over 10,000 square miles. It would take a serious ground and air presence to have even a chance of rooting out al-Qaeda in Pakistan's FATA territories, and that's simply not in the cards.

I understand the political imperative to sound tough, but on a substantive level there's less here than meets the eye. Covert ops in the FATA territories are distinctly limited, and full-scale invasion is out of the question. The rest of Obama's speech might have been less attention-grabbing than his Pakistan baiting, but it was also more important. The boring bits usually are.

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FUTURE SHOCK...."The combined net worth of Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Bill Gates is over $50 billion!" This statement is (a) true and (b) not very helpful.

Likewise for "The combination of Social Security, boomer retirement, and rising medical costs add up to a looming catastrophe!" Responding to a typically duplicitous Robert Samuelson column today, Mark Thoma explains:

Social Security is not the problem, it won't take much to get it on solid footing, though the scare stories over the past several years have made many people believe otherwise (and Samuelson has helped to generate this false impression). The problem is not demographics either, though it certainly costs more to serve a larger number of people.

The main problem is rising medical costs....

Right. Social Security is solely a demographic issue, and its costs will rise by about 2% of GDP over the next 40 years before leveling out. Ditto for the demographic aspects of Medicare growth. That isn't peanuts, but it's not a catastrophe either. It's pretty easily managable. Of these three things, it's the explosion of medical costs that accounts for about 70% of our future budgetary problems.

Medical costs are rising all over the world, and to some extent this is inevitable. Richer societies have more disposable income, and healthcare is one of the first things people are willing to spend extra income on. And technology, which generally makes things cheaper in other areas, perversely does just the opposite in the healthcare arena, providing us with ever more (and more expensive) marvels for controlling the results of our own bad habits.

There are at least partial answers to this. We could change the incentives faced by doctors. A national healthcare system could cut down considerably on administrative costs and eliminate the insanity of providing routine healthcare via emergency rooms. We could put more emphasis on preventive care and lifestyle management.

What we shouldn't do, though, is run around like headless chickens worrying about Social Security and boomer retirements. Healthcare is the problem. The rest is distraction.

Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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POLITICAL PROGRESS IN IRAQ....Marc Lynch reports that the latest withdrawal of the Sunni al-Tawafuq bloc from the Maliki government in Iraq is probably for real this time. After explaining what this means on a practical level (namely that the political process isn't merely stalled, but actively deteriorating), he concludes:

Nobody who follows Iraq really needs the recitation of failed political benchmarks, I suppose, but it's worth stating it bluntly: The Bush administration argued that its new strategy should be judged by the political process, not at the military level, and by its own standards it has clearly failed. Switching the focus back to tactical military developments may allow administration defenders to put forward signs of 'progress' — however ephemeral, dubious, or beside the point — but serious people shouldn't join in this shell game. The administration and its supporters sold the surge on the premise that it would pay its dividends at the level of national Iraqi politics. It hasn't. The Sunnis have left the government, none of the political benchmarks have been met, and they won't be since the Parliament has adjourned until September. No honest report from Ambassador Crocker — who is an honest man and a very good diplomat — will be able to portray any progress, or prospects for progress, on the national political front.

But will Crocker be willing to deliver an honest report? And if he is, will the Bush administration let him? We'll see.

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SMART METERS....Here's a good example of consumer group shortsightedness. My local power company, Southern California Edison, wants to start rolling out "smart meters" in people's homes, an initiative that would (a) cost money but (b) almost certainly cut down electricity usage in the long run. Here's the response the LA Times got in a story today about the rollout costs:

"Edison is assuming that people will use and respond to this stuff. . . but we don't have any guaranteed benefits here," said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network. "The only thing that's guaranteed is the cost."

...."Whether the consumer has a smart meter or the consumer has a dumb meter, the bottom line for the consumer is that the less [electricity] they use, the less they pay, and the more they use, the more they pay," Spatt said. "That's a message I'm willing to deliver for free."

Yeah, I'm willing to deliver it for free too. In fact, I just did. But I don't expect that this post will really have much impact on my readers' electricity use. Conversely, a colorful LCD display in your home that showed you, in real time, how much electricity you were using and how much it cost, would almost certainly change your habits over time.

The way the system works is fairly simple: your old meter gets replaced by a nifty new SmartConnect meter, which then connects wirelessly to a display inside your home. It can also connect wirelessly to compatible appliances in your home and you can, if you want, program the unit to automatically turn certain appliances off if the price of electricity goes over a certain level. I haven't seen what the actual indoor meters look like, but you can get an idea here.

Scoffing at this stuff is dumb. People respond to incentives and they respond more strongly when the incentives are right in front of their faces. Sure, smart meters cost money, but there's no free lunch. It's an idea whose time has come.

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DARFUR....Possibly some good news on the Darfur front:

Gordon Brown scored a dramatic first foreign policy victory last night when the UN security council voted to deploy a 26,000-strong international force to Darfur, with a mandate to stop the massacres of civilians which have driven 2 million people from their homes.

....The UN vote will dispatch a hybrid force of 19,555 UN and African Union (AU) soldiers and more than 6,000 police from around the world. They are due to take over from a largely ineffectual 7,000-strong AU force in the western Sudan by the end of the year, and will have a much more muscular mandate.

There's no guarantee yet that (a) the UN member countries will actually come though with the troops or (b) Sudan will allow the troops to be deployed. But it's a start.

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SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES....Courtesy of the Washington Post, an example of how the Bush administration's governing philosophy is apparently the result of too many viewings of The Godfather:

  • On October 24th of last year, U.S. Attorney John Brownlee, after years of effort and with the approval of the head of the DOJ criminal division, is a day away from securing a guilty plea from the manufacturer of OxyContin.

  • Mary Jo White, a defense lawyer representing an executive for OxyContin's manufacturer, calls Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to beg for a postponement.

  • McNulty tells his chief of staff, Paul Elston, to call Brownlee and ask him to slow down.

  • Brownlee declines and announces the settlement.

  • Eight days later, Elston puts Brownlee's name on a list of U.S. Attorneys to be fired.

Brownlee dodged the bullet and is still a U.S. Attorney. But I'm sure he and his colleagues got the message.

Kevin Drum 2:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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