Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

LA STORY....The LA Times reports that Los Angeles has experienced a huge drop in homicides this year:

The drop comes nine months after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton vowed to crack down on gangs. But though previous anti-gang campaigns have involved mass arrests and high-profile sweeps, this effort has been more targeted.

And in its most radical shift, the LAPD is putting aside decades of suspicion and turning for help to gang intervention workers, many of whom were gang members.

....Overall, Los Angeles has recorded [289] homicides so far this year, with Bratton saying he believes the city will end the year with the lowest number of killings in 37 years (in 1970, there were 394 homicides). Authorities believe the help of gang intervention workers has made a difference, but they acknowledge that they can't fully explain the drop.

Yes, this is the same William Bratton who was fired by Rudy Giuliani for reducing crime in New York City and then having the gall to take a share of the credit for it. Quite a guy, our Rudy.

Kevin Drum 4:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

WAL-MART....Megan McArdle applauds Wal-Mart's low prices on generic prescription drugs, and then adds this:

At the same time, they take a huge beating for the wages they pay their workers, and the alleged stinginess of their health care plans. But these two things are flip sides of the same coin: they can afford to provide cheap drugs in part because they have a flexible and inexpensive labor force.

It's the "in part" that critical here. Labor expenses only amount to about 10% of revenues for Wal-Mart. If you increased the pay of every single clerk, greeter, and stocker in the chain by two or three bucks an hour, it would only increase Wal-Mart's prices by about 2%. Their prices would still be the lowest around because it's not labor costs that account for most of their efficiency. It's world class logistics, aggressive offshoring, enormous sales volumes, and ruthless bargaining with suppliers that accounts for most of it.

If Wal-Mart had to offer low wages and lousy benefits just to stay in business, that would be one thing. But they don't. We should expect them to do better.

Kevin Drum 1:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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September 29, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE CLIMATE CHARADE....Apparently nobody outside the U.S. was fooled for a minute by George Bush's "climate summit." The Guardian reports:

European ministers, diplomats and officials attending the Washington conference were scathing, particularly in private, over Mr Bush's failure once again to commit to binding action on climate change.

....The conference, attended by more than 20 countries, including China, India, Britain, France and Germany, broke up with the US isolated, according to non-Americans attending. One of those present said even China and India, two of the biggest polluters, accepted that the voluntary approach proposed by the US was untenable and favoured binding measures, even though they disagreed with the Europeans over how this would be achieved.

A senior European diplomat attending the conference, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting confirmed European suspicions that it had been intended by Mr Bush as a spoiler for a major UN conference on climate change in Bali in December.

"It was a total charade and has been exposed as a charade," the diplomat said. "I have never heard a more humiliating speech by a major leader. He [Mr Bush] was trying to present himself as a leader while showing no sign of leadership. It was a total failure."

Of course, there was an easier way to tell that nobody in the White House was taking this thing seriously: it was named the "Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change." When it's a real initiative they take the time to come up with a snappy name and a nifty acronym. This time, they didn't bother.

Kevin Drum 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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By: Kevin Drum

FUNDRAISER....Over at Comments From Left Field, they're holding a fundraiser in honor of Sgt. Yance Gray and Sgt. Omar Mora, two of the seven soldiers who wrote a recent op-ed about the war in the New York Times. Gray and Mora were killed in a vehicle accident while on patrol in Baghdad two weeks ago.

The money raised from the fund drive is going to Fisher House, a charity that builds houses near military medical facilities. Loved ones of those who have been injured in the line of duty can stay free of charge while their service member undergoes necessary treatment.

So far over $2,000 has been raised, and the organizers are trying to raise a total of $10,000. More details here. You can make donations here.

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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September 28, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

RUDY!....The money for that initiative to split up California's electoral votes may have been laundered through Missouri, but it originated in New York City. The LA Times identifies the initiative's main backer as Rudy Giuliani's biggest fundraiser:

He is New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. He said he provided the $175,000 to initially finance the petition drive to get the measure on the June 2008 ballot....Singer oversees Elliott Associates, an $8 billion investment fund. He is also chairman of Giuliani's northeast fundraising operation that produced a third of the New Yorker's $33.5 million campaign war chest in the first six months of 2007. Singer and his employees have donated at least $182,000 to the Giuliani campaign so far this year.

"I made the contribution without any restrictions," Singer's statement said. Some Democrats have threatened legal action, complaining that federal campaign finance laws were violated if the Giuliani campaign was involved.

Tonight, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement demanding to know "the truth about Rudy's involvement in and knowledge about this shameful effort to disenfranchise voters."

I suspect that stonewalling will remain the name of the game at Giuliani HQ for as long as they can hold out.

Kevin Drum 11:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....When we first got Domino, she decided that she wasn't really that thrilled with the whole water dish idea. So every night, when we set the table for dinner, she'd jump up and start lapping water out of Marian's glass. We'd toss her down, and she'd jump back up. Finally, we gave in to the inevitable and just gave her her own glass. It's a USC tumbler that now resides permanently on our coffee table, and as near as I can tell it's the only thing she drinks out of. She can only stuff her face about halfway down, of course, and knocks it over if it gets too empty. So we make sure to top it off every morning. We are well trained.

As for Inkblot, he'll drink out of anything. Puddles in the backyard are a favorite. Yesterday, though, he was just sitting on the bench showing off his vast expanse of tummy fur. Vast, I tell you.

Kevin Drum 3:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BIDEN PLAN....Partition Iraq? Marc Lynch thinks not:

As meaningless, non-binding symbolic Senate resolutions go, Joe Biden just managed a doozy. By passing with 75 votes a meaningless, non-binding symbolic Senate resolution in favor of the partition of Iraq, Biden managed to simultaneously: infuriate nearly all Iraqis, who have virtually unanimously condemned the resolution (as have the Arab allies of the US, for that matter); let Senate Republicans off the hook by allowing them to say that they voted for change even though they continue to vote against anything real; and endorse an unworkable plan which would massively increase human suffering while working against American interests in the region and not actually solving the problems.

Come on, Marc, tell us what you really think.

Kevin Drum 2:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

EDWARDS ON IRAQ....Here's an excerpt from Wednesday's Democratic debate. It came after John Edwards said firmly that he would pull all combat troops out of Iraq and wouldn't continue combat missions there. "I believe this war needs to be brought to an end," he said. Then this:

MR. RUSSERT: Would you send combat troops back in if there was genocide?

MR. EDWARDS: I believe that America along with the rest of the world would have a responsibility to respond to genocide. It's not something we should do alone. In fact, if we do it alone, it could be counterproductive.

In fact, if I can go one step further beyond what you just asked, I think the president of the United States — and I as president — would have a responsibility, as we begin to bring our combat troops out of Iraq, to prepare for two possibilities. One is the possibility that — the worst possibility, which is that genocide breaks out, Shi'a try to systematically eliminate the Sunni. I think we need to be preparing for that with the international community now, not wait. And second, the possibility that this war starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq. And that's a very difficult thing to contain, because we know historically that it's difficult to contain a civil war.

An emailer wrote to suggest that Edwards is saying, yes, he'd send troops back in. I take the opposite view. The odds of getting the "international community" to send troops into Iraq to break up a Shia-Sunni war is exactly zero, and Edwards knows it perfectly well. By saying "It's not something we should do alone," he's effectively closing off the prospect of sending U.S. troops back into Iraq under any circumstances, but without quite saying so directly.

Comments? Which interpretation sounds most plausible to you?

UPDATE: cmdicely thinks that what Edwards is really saying is that we need to change the current reality:

Edwards is clearly saying here that the US needs, absolutely, to begin laying the groundwork now so that if genocide were to occur in Iraq, the current political reality that would make the international community unlikely to be willing and able to respond effectively would no longer hold, so that effective, productive international intervention to end any such genocide, which would have a US role, would be practical.

He is also saying that if that is not done, then it seems certain that the US would not be able to productively intervene if there were a genocide.

This doesn't match either your interpretation that Edwards views it as a static reality that there is no possibility of an international effort if needed, nor does it match your anonymous correspondent's interpretation that Edwards is committing unequivocally to send troops back in.

My take: I agree that Edwards said this, but I'm not sure it answers the question. I'd say the odds of the international community sending combat troops to Iraq is virtually zero no matter what Edwards or any other president does. It's just not gonna happen. For all practical purposes, then, Edwards is saying he wouldn't send troops back in under any circumstances that are even reasonably conceivable.

Also in comments, Catch22 says, "I think the most honest answer is that it would depend on a lot of things." That sounds about right.

Kevin Drum 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA UPDATE....Barack Obama held a rally in New York City last night and wanted to make sure everyone knew it was big:

His staff had a scissors lift (a.k.a. a cherry-picker) and was taking photographers — and, by the end of the evening, print reporters as well — up in it to get crowd shots.

I guess that's pretty clever. Or is it old hat, but I've just never heard of it before?

In other Obama news, Bloomberg reports:

When the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation takes up the topic "What's at Stake in '08" at its annual legislative conference today, the group's only presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, won't be leading the discussion.

Top billing will go to New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who will be joined by Caucus leaders in the main ballroom of the Washington Convention Center. Obama will speak later in the day, on climate change, in a much smaller conference room.

"I was shocked" by the program, said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland in College Park who advised Reverend Jesse Jackson's presidential runs. "Environmentalism is important, but it's not one of the headline issues in the black community."

The rest of the story is a gloss on what's apparently become the newest buzz in Obama reporting: the belief that because Obama is black, he can't afford to be seen as too close to the black community. "He has to run what I would call a deracialized campaign," said Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. This has all the makings of being the latest Hot Topic™ on the campaign trail. Expect a Newsweek cover story soon.

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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By: Kevin Drum

FOLLOW THE MONEY....So what's the deal with that shadowy organization that was funding the initiative to split California's electoral votes? Oddly enough, the money trail leads back to Missouri. Show Me Progress has more.

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY TUESDAY?....John Quiggin asks "Why Tuesday?" That is, why do Americans always vote on Tuesday? Luckily, John links to a site called Why Tuesday? that offers an answer:

We vote on Tuesday because of an 1845 federal law that was passed when 80% of Americans lived on farms. At the time it could often take a day or longer to get to the polls, and Congress did not want this travel to conflict with days of religious observance, which left Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday was market day. So: Tuesday.

Well, this is the story I've always heard too. But now the question is: is this story true? Or is it an urban legend that got started somewhere and has since conquered the world? Beats me. But it certainly sounds plausible, doesn't it?

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, Why Tuesday? is actually an organization trying to get voting day changed, perhaps to the weekend, perhaps to a national holiday. Check 'em out.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TRAP....Via email, Daniel Brook, author of The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, responds to my post about the book from earlier this week:

I'm often accused of being old-fashioned. I have the crazy notion that being a teacher or a district attorney is a real career that should provide enough for a middle-class life. And I still believe when people review books, they should have read them first.

I don't mind in the slightest Washington Monthly writer Doron Taussig making a few criticisms of my book in his thoughtful review, but I do mind Kevin Drum spouting off in a "review of the review."

What really irked me was Drum's "color me unconvinced" comment. Well, of course, a reviewer will be unconvinced by a book if he hasn't extended the author the chance to convince him by actually reading the book! Had Drum read The Trap, he would have learned facts like these:

  1. In 1972, starting salaries at Manhattan corporate law firms were $16,000 while the federal government offered its newly minted lawyers $13,300 and Legal Aid of New York paid $12,500. Today, the public sector/private sector salary gap is $100,000 as shown by the latest figures from the National Association of Law Placement.

  2. The teacher-lawyer comparison is similar: In 1970, starting New York City teachers made just $2,000 less than starting Wall Street lawyers. They now make $100,000 less. Today, teacher-headed households are priced out of more than 90% of the region's census tracts.

  3. In 1980, the City of Chicago paid its starting teachers $13,770, more than two and a half times the annual tuition at the University of Chicago. Today, U of C tuition is almost equal to teacher pay, tuition having tripled in real dollars in a generation.

All I'm saying is that these considerations change the math of choosing a public service career and thus route talent in certain ways. As a progressive, I'm concerned that these are not ways that are most beneficial to society and, as I show in the book, many of the people routed this way feel "trapped" rather than liberated.

I don't ask that reviewers agree with me, but I do ask that they withhold judgment until they read the book.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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By: Kevin Drum

VOTER ID....In the LA Times today, law professor Daniel Tokaji asks if voter ID laws, like the Indiana law that's being challenged in the Supreme Court, are "a new poll tax":

This burden that Indiana's law imposes might be defensible if the state had evidence that ID is needed to prevent polling place fraud, but that evidence simply doesn't exist. The state of Indiana couldn't document a single case of voter impersonation at the polls. In other words, voter ID is a solution in search of a problem.

....In challenging this law, voting rights advocates rely on a 1966 case that struck down poll taxes, which were used to disenfranchise African Americans in some Southern states. In that opinion, the Supreme Court held that even a $1.50 poll tax discriminated against voters based on their economic status. The court declared that restrictions on the right to vote must be "closely scrutinized and carefully confined."

Some are optimistic that the Supreme Court will follow this precedent and strike down Indiana's law, thereby placing comparably strict laws in jeopardy....[But] just last year, it lifted a court order against an Arizona voter ID law that required photo ID or two forms of non-photo ID. That opinion turned the right to vote on its head. The court suggested that the mere perception of voter fraud was equivalent to vote dilution. According to the court, citizens might "feel disenfranchised" if they believe, correctly or not, that others are committing vote fraud.

Indiana "couldn't document a single case of voter impersonation at the polls." And we're supposed to believe that voter fraud is the real reason behind these laws? Please.

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

ETHANOL....Thanks to the ethanol boom, the Washington Post reports that:

most farmers earned between $100 and $400 an acre on their 2006 crop after expenses, depending on whether they owned or rented their land. That translates into profits of $100,000 to $400,000 on a 1,000-acre farm. The USDA predicts that net farm income will be $87.1 billion this year, up nearly 50 percent over 2006.

Iowa farmland values are up 18 percent in the past 12 months, according to Federal Reserve Board surveys, making millionaires on paper out of any farmers owning 200 acres free and clear.

And what's our legislative resonse to this? "A House-passed farm bill would give corn growers $10.5 billion over the next five years, even if prices stay high."

Terrific. Let's see: (a) environmentally speaking, corn ethanol is a pretty dodgy idea in the first place, (b) we're subsidizing it anyway to the tune of $3 billion per year, (c) farmers, as you'd expect, are responding to the subsidies by reducing the amount of farmland used for food production, (d) this is driving up the price of staple food worldwide, and (e) we're going to toss another $10 billion in ag welfare to already-rich corn farmers on top of all that. Jeebus. Can anyone think of any other single policy that has as many simultaneous baneful effects? Are we complete morons?

No, don't answer that.

Kevin Drum 3:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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By: Kevin Drum

ELECTORAL COLLEGE HIJINKS....Remember that cute little piece of skullduggery Republicans have been backing that would split California's electoral votes by congressional district instead of awarding them all to a single candidate? Long story short, California is reliably blue and a Democratic presidential candidate could normally expect to win all 55 of the state's votes. Under the new proposal they'd probably split about 35-20. Democrats would instantly lose 20 electoral votes.

So clever. So sly. So dead:

The Times' Dan Morain reports that the proposal to change the winner-take-all electoral vote allocation to one by congressional district is virtually dead with the resignation of key supporters, internal disputes and a lack of funds.

....Opposition was lead by Democratic consultant Chris Lehane who received financial backing from donors such as Stephen Bing, like Lehane a Hillary Clinton backer who saw any threat to keeping all of California's electoral votes as unacceptable.

"We want to to make sure this is not the Freddie Kruger of initiatives," Lehane said today, "that comes back to life. We'll continue to monitor it."

The LA Times promises a full report on the debacle later tonight.

UPDATE: The full story is here:

The campaign received only one sizable donation — $175,000. That is less than one-tenth of the $2 million typically needed to gather sufficient signatures to qualify a measure for the California ballot.

The donation arrived on Sept. 11....But the individual donors to the organization were not known.

...."I am not willing to proceed under such circumstances," Hiltachk said. "Therefore, I am resigning my role in this campaign." Eckery added: "There's no reason to be cute on campaign contributions. We had nothing to hide, and the public has every right to know."

....Hurth did not return repeated calls seeking comment. His spokesman, Republican consultant Jonathan Wilcox, would not say who provided the $175,000. Wilcox said the group was planning to donate to other conservative causes around the country, including one in Utah to create school vouchers.

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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September 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC OPINION....Atrios, predicting a veto of the SCHIP children's healthcare bill followed by yet another dreary round of "Democrats can't get anything done," thinks Dems need a better media strategy:

I get the sense that Democrats craft these things behind closed doors, try to come up with palatable bipartisan agreements, and then show up on the teevee the day of the vote and announce that they passed it....The Republican version would've been to spend 6 months telling people that kids are GOING TO DIE RIGHT NOW UNLESS THIS BILL PASSES and beating the Democrats into submission. That isn't how our team works. Which is fine, if it achieves something. Not fine if it doesn't.

That's exactly right. Public opinion is key, and although there are conspicious exceptions to this general rule, conservatives are better at molding it than we are. It's the same reason that opposition to the war ran into a wall this summer: Petraeus spent all of July and August conducting a quiet media blitzkrieg selling the surge, while the rest of us twiddled our thumbs and waited for his September testimony. But by September the deed was done. Support for the war, which was beginning to crater even among Republicans earlier this year, had been successfully shored up before Petraeus ever set foot in a hearing room. Public sentiment for the war may not have increased after Petraeus's testimony, but its downward slide was halted, and that was enough. Mission accomplished.

Public opinion. Public opinion. Public opinion. That's what matters, and we have to get better at changing it. The first step is to understand it.

Kevin Drum 5:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Kevin Drum

CORRUPTION....The State Department isn't impressed with anticorruption efforts in Iraq's government ministries:

The Ministry of Interior is seen by Iraqis as untouchable....Corruption investigations in Ministry of Defense are judged to be ineffectual....corruption investigations are clearly inadequate in the Ministry of Trade. The Ministry of Health is a sore point....Anticorruption cases concerning the Ministry of Education have been particularly ineffective....the Ministry of Water Resources it is effectively out of the anticorruption fight....the Ministry of Labor & Social Affairs is hostile to the prosecution of corruption cases....In the Ministry of Displacement & Migration there has been only one investigation initiated or complaint made about any person identified with the Shia. Anticorruption activity efforts are in practical measure devoid in the Ministry of Science and Technology....In the Ministry of Youth & Sports no cases have made it to trial because the minister has granted Article 136B immunity from trial on wholesale bases....Only one conviction has ever come from corruption cases in the entire city of Baghdad.

Did I leave any out?

Actually, yes. The Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Oil, the Ministry of Transportation, the Ministry of Housing and Construction, and the Ministry of Electricity are also hopelessly corrupt. I think that's all of them.

Kevin Drum 2:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORAL HAZARD....Several people have already pointed out the weirdness of this passage from today's New York Times's story about the new labor contract between GM and the UAW:

Beyond the bookkeeping effect of VEBAs, the health care funds could create a kind of incentive for Detroit companies and the union to modify their behavior.

....U.A.W. members, assured of health care benefits that were the envy of the labor movement, had little incentive to take better care of their health, since their generous coverage would pay for most any ailment.

By contrast, Toyota, which pays premiums only for workers, not their families, has fitness centers at its factories and requires newly hired workers to exercise two hours a day during their training period.

But this goes way beyond weird. Toyota funds employee healthcare through a mandatory payroll tax that stays the same regardless of whether its employees are healthy. The funding system itself provides no incentives one way or the other to stay fit. Furthermore, Japanese payroll taxes heavily subsidize the healthcare system for nonworkers, which means that, in essence, Toyota is paying for healthcare for everyone, not just its workers.

Japan has universal healthcare. Everyone is covered no matter what, so Japanese workers and their families have every bit as much incentive to overuse the healthcare system as American autoworkers. There's nothing about this entire passage that makes any sense. What's it doing in the story?

Kevin Drum 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

WITHDRAWAL....Why were all three of the leading Dem candidates at last night's debate unwilling to promise a full withdrawal from Iraq by 2013? James Joyner takes a guess:

There's no doubt that the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are reluctant to give a firm commitment on withdrawing troops from Iraq. The reason, I suspect, is that there's a vast difference in running for president and running for Congress. Those with a plausible chance of being elected Commander in Chief have much less luxury to be glib and reactionary in their foreign policy pronouncements, since they would actually have to execute those policies upon taking office.

I don't think this holds water. Candidates make promises all the time and then break them. And this one is even easier to break than most: there are certain to be dozens of events over the next four years that will provide a president with a perfectly plausible excuse to stay in Iraq even if he or she had promised otherwise during the campaign.

I think the problem is simpler: the major Dems aren't promising to get out of Iraq because they don't think it's a winning position. Even in the Democratic primaries, they don't think it's a winning position.

Why? Perhaps they've decided that the median Democratic voter isn't really as hellbent on total withdrawal as the median liberal blogger. Perhaps they think that a promise to begin withdrawing is good enough for most people. Perhaps they think that a firm promise to withdraw runs the risk of hurting them in the general election — and anything that even remotely looks like a flip-flop would hurt them even more. Perhaps they're scared of elite Beltway opinion. Perhaps they genuinely believe that we need to keep some troops in Iraq.

But whatever it is, they've all apparently decided that taking a fuzzy withdrawal position isn't going to hurt them too badly. They don't think advocates of total withdrawal are going to punish them enough at the polls to make a bolder position necessary. Time will tell if they're right.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE DEBATE....There are times when I really admire the fortitude of mainstream reporters, and last night was one of them. For the first time in a while I watched one of the Democratic debates, and by the end I felt like I was in a total fog. What would I have done if I had to write a thousand-word summary to make the next day's paper? I couldn't even figure out enough to say for a blog post.

Part of the problem was Tim Russert. I long ago got tired of his rote version of gotcha interviewing, and it was on full display last night. He seems to think that the only way of interviewing politicians is to find something embarrassing or inconsistent that they once said and then demand that they explain themselves. Not only does this get boring, but he doesn't seem to have figured out that modern politicians all know perfectly well how to avoid answering these "have you stopped beating your mother" questions. So instead of a hard-hitting debate, what you get is even mushier and less enlightening than a normal conversation. The answers all start with "Let me back up and explain the real issue here" and then meander off into whatever the candidate feels like talking about. The only thing Russert's questions accomplish is to make each candidate waste ten or fifteen seconds at the beginning changing the subject.

As for the candidates themselves, Edwards seemed to me to do the best. His answers weren't as sharp as I've seen before, but he mostly seemed to frame things in ways that made sense, even in cases where they make no sense at all (for example, the business of cutting off congressional healthcare until Congress passes a healthcare bill). Obama was, again, tentative and halting. He mostly just relied on well-rehearsed soundbites and constant reminders that HE WAS RIGHT ABOUT THE WAR FROM THE BEGINNING. We get it, Barack. Hillary was OK, but didn't really advance her cause, I thought. Even granted that Russert should quit asking hypotheticals since he knows no one will answer them, her answers to his hypotheticals were more plainly evasive than usual.

Among the others, Gravel needs to be put out of his misery. These debates really don't need comic relief in the form of someone playing the cranky uncle role. Dodd did pretty well, I thought, though his reliance on his decades of Washington experience didn't seem very convincing. Richardson never does very well in these forums and didn't do well last night. Biden I can't figure out. He has this weird attitude that seems to say that he's just up there having a good time and knows perfectly well that he has no serious chance of becoming the nominee. And he knows we know it. So we're all in on the joke. Or something. And Kucinich was Kucinich. It doesn't matter that much, but he did better than usual.

Anyway, those are my impressions. What were yours?

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIVE BY THE SWORD....It's schadenfreude time:

A crucial GOP fundraising committee is nearly broke, according to its latest monthly filing with the Federal Election Committee last week.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) reported $1.6 million in cash on hand and $4 million in debts as of Aug. 31. The group helps bankroll House campaigns for GOP candidates.

Its counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, reported $22.1 million, more than 10 times its Republican counterpart.

....Senate Republicans are in a state of relative poverty, also. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign has just over $7 million on hand, according to the new filings. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has more than $20 million.

It couldn't happen to a more deserving crew.

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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September 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE ARGUMENT....Last night, mulling over the contradictions in the way people answer various poll questions, I guessed that there's "something like 30% who want to stay in Iraq, 30% who want to get out, and 40% somewhere in the middle who aren't really sure what to do." No poll will ever confirm this beyond doubt, of course, since polls (at best) measure only inclination, not depth of feeling. But given the way people respond to different wordings of different questions, it seems like a reasonable guess.

Here's why it matters: we're not going to get out of Iraq until a sufficient number of people get pissed off enough about it to demand action — and we're kidding ourselves if we think a casual answer to a poll question counts as "pissed off." Support for withdrawal is almost certainly not as deep or as wide as a quick glance at the polls suggests, and that's why congressional Democrats haven't worked up the gumption to defund the war. They don't think there are enough voters firmly on their side.

So why are so many people unsure of what to do? Because Iraq is a big, messy problem, of course. But there's more than that. Conservatives have presented a clear message: If we leave, al-Qaeda will take over Iraq. If we leave, there will be genocide. If we leave, Iraq's civil war will spread and the entire region will erupt in flames.

Liberals, by contrast, mostly just argue that the surge isn't working and there's been no political progress. And that's true. But it's a lousy argument. Conservatives are making a persuasive and spine-chilling prediction of disaster if we leave. Liberals are just saying our presence isn't accomplishing anything. That's not enough. Instead of merely claiming that we're not doing any good in Iraq, we need to make persuasive arguments that we're actively doing harm. There are plenty to choose from:

  • A significant chunk of the insurgency is motivated by opposition to the American occupation. Our presence is actively inflaming the violence, not reducing it.

  • The Maliki government will never make any political compromises as long as they know we're around to prop them up. Leaving is the only way to force them into action.

  • We're arming both sides in a civil war. The longer we stay, the worse the eventual bloodbath will be.

  • Our presence in Iraq is al-Qaeda's greatest recruiting tool. They're going to keep getting stronger until we leave.

  • The real disaster is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We desperately need to more troops into that theater.

These aren't nuanced arguments. If you were writing a 5,000-word piece for Foreign Affairs you'd hedge them until they were barely recognizable. But in the hurly-burly arena of blogs and op-eds and TV shoutfests, this is what it takes to drive public opinion.

When we argue that the surge isn't working, we're playing on conservative turf. We're accepting their frame for the debate. We need to stop, and instead start making positive arguments of our own that conservatives have to parry. It's the only way we're going to turn the leaners into genuine war opponents.

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By: Kevin Drum

FUNDRAISING....Bloomberg reports that Hillary Clinton may be about to "blunt one of rival Barack Obama's few advantages" in the presidential race:

As the campaigns press donors with predictions that their candidate is losing the fund-raising race, both Clinton and Obama are set to report about $20 million in donations during the third quarter, which ends Sept. 30, according to campaign officials and fund-raisers.

A failure to out-raise Clinton would deprive Obama of the momentum he needs to overcome his rival's significant leads in national and key state polls.

This is crazy. Obama is on track to raise maybe 3x what the leading candidates in 2004 raised for primary season. He's already raised $60 million compared to Howard Dean's $50 million for the entire 2004 race. There's just no way he could seriously be expected to do much better than that. Have we really gotten to the point where an insurgent candidate can raise nearly $80 million by September and still be considered a disappointment? Holy cow.

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BLACKWATER UPDATE....Apparently there's a major State-Defense bureaucratic battle brewing over the role of Blackwater contractors in Iraq:

"This is a nightmare," said a senior U.S. military official. "We had guys who saw the aftermath [of the shootings in Nisoor Square last week], and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we're trying to have an impact for the long term."

...."This is a big mess that I don't think anyone has their hands around yet," said another U.S. military official. "It's not necessarily a bad thing these guys are being held accountable. Iraqis hate them, the troops don't particularly care for them, and they tend to have a know-it-all attitude, which means they rarely listen to anyone — even the folks that patrol the ground on a daily basis."

....A State Department official asked why the military is shifting the question to State "since the DOD has more Blackwater contractors than we do, including people doing PSD [personal security detail] for them....They've [Blackwater] basically got contracts with DOD that are larger than the contracts with State."

There are plenty of other juicy quotes in the story too, including one from a Lt. Colonel who — if I'm reading it right — says that no one believes Blackwater's story that it was Iraqis who fired first in the Nisoor Square incident.

In related news, David Kurtz reports that (a) the State Department has refused to allow Blackwater to testify at congressional oversight hearings, (b) Condoleezza Rice has also refused to testify, and (c) nobody else from State will testify either unless it's done in closed session. In other words, Blackwater's actions, just like its employees, are in a legal limbo that prevents any effective oversight from either congress or the judicial system. Nice work if you can get it.

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By: Kevin Drum

POLL LITERALISM....Everybody is beating up on David Brooks for his column yesterday, and rightly so. As he does so often, Brooks based his Tuesday column on the conceit that he has some special insight into what "ordinary" voters think, an insight that (a) usually turns out to be remarkably close to what David Brooks himself thinks and (b) bears little relation to what actual polls say.

This is one of Brooks's worst habits, and it's a tiresome one. But there's an opposite habit that can be equally dangerous: "poll literalism." This is a common malady among liberals — I'm guilty of it myself periodically — who frequently claim that "everyone agrees with us" based on poll results that show support for liberal positions on a wide variety of issues. And it's true: polls really do show this with some regularity. Unfortunately, answers to poll questions come in a vacuum. They don't show what people think once the other side has a chance to get a few licks in.

Here are two examples. First, withdrawal from Iraq. A recent New York Times poll showed that 65% of respondents want to withdraw either some or all of our troops from Iraq. Hooray! The country is with us! But then the Times asked a followup question: "What if removing troops meant Iraq would become more of a base of operations for terrorists, then would you still favor removing U.S. troops from Iraq, or not?"

Guess what? Of that 65%, only 30% still favored removal. That's a huge drop based on a single hypothetical, and in a real campaign that hypothetical would practically blanket the airwarves. It wouldn't convince everyone, of course, but it would probably convince a sizable chunk. The odds are that in real life — i.e., during a campaign in which voters were responding to actual arguments instead of casually answering poll questions over a telephone — there's something like 30% who want to stay in Iraq, 30% who want to get out, and 40% somewhere in the middle who aren't really sure what to do.

Example #2 comes from a much derided recent poll conducted by Celinda Lake for Joe Biden. The reason it was derided (aside from the fact that Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza failed to inform his readers that Biden was behind the poll) was because of the wording of one of the questions: "Some people say [your Democratic incumbent] is a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton and will support her liberal agenda of big government and higher taxes if she becomes president," the poll stated, before asking respondents whether they would still vote for their incumbent or choose a Republican candidate.

Outrageous! And it is. On the other hand, that's exactly what Republican House candidates are going to say, isn't it? Which means that this poll, showing a 6-point lead for Democratic incumbents, is probably more useful than generic polls showing a 10 or 15 point lead.

Now, obviously this works in both direction: liberals get to make arguments during campaigns too. But conservative arguments appeal to fear pretty effectively, which means that on difficult, highly charged issues, like withdrawing from Iraq, a lot of people tend to be schizophrenic. One day they want to get out, but then they see a scary TV ad and the next day they don't.

Brooks has a bad habit of ignoring poll results that he doesn't want to acknowledge, but it can be nearly as debilitating to go in the other direction and take poll results too seriously. Middle America may not be as hawkish as Brooks imagines them to be, but they probably aren't as noninterventionist as the blogspheric left imagines either. The truth isn't always in the middle, but in this case it probably is.

Kevin Drum 12:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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September 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HOUSING BUBBLE WATCH....The housing meltdown continues apace:

The supply of unsold U.S. homes ballooned to an 18-year high in August as demand for existing homes fell to a five-year low, according to a report by the National Assn. of Realtors....Also today, a separate report indicated that home prices were falling at an increasing rate. The closely watched S&P/Case-Shiller home prices index, which tracks results in metropolitan areas and is considered a leading measure of U.S. single-family home prices, showed an annual decline of 4.5% for the 12 months ended in July, representing the biggest drop since 1991.

....Sales are expected to continue their descent, further weighing down prices...."August's sales do not reflect the full impact of the credit crunch, which hit financial markets in mid-month, since most sales were financed with loans approved weeks beforehand," said Patrick Newport, an economist with research firm Global Insight.

Alan Greenspan says there's nothing he could have done about the housing bubble. Monetary levers are too crude to do any good, and the least worst option is to let the bubble collapse on its own and then pick up the pieces afterward.

Maybe so. But that still doesn't explain why Greenspan cheered on the bubble back in 2004. Watch him squirm over that here.

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UNIONBUSTING CONFIDENTIAL....Art Levine dons a false moustache and crashes the gates at a seminar designed to teach managers how to keep unions at bay. Sample advice:

What if we simply wanted to fire union organizers? That was possible to do, said Stief, as long as you were careful to do so for other reasons. "Union sympathizers aren't entitled to any more protection than other workers," he explained. But the firing could not be linked to their union activity.

What if we felt like saying a lot of anti-union stuff to our workers? Lotito introduced a segment called "You Can Say It." Could we tell our workers, for instance, that a union had held strike at a nearby facility only to find that all the strikers had been replaced — and that the same could happen to the employees here? Sure, said Lotito. "It's lawful." He added, "What happens if this statement is a lie? They didn't have another strike, there were no replacements? It's still lawful: The labor board doesn't really care if people are lying."

The rest of the story is here.

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DIRECTIVE NUMBER 12....In the Bill Sammon piece I linked to earlier, he notes that George Bush is busily "institutionalizing controversial anti-terror programs so they can be used by the next president." Guantanamo was the example Sammon used to illustrate this point, but a friend emailed last night to raise my consciousness about another example: Homeland Security Presidential Directive Number 12. A blogger whose wife is a grad student doing climate modeling for NASA explains:

This Presidential Directive is all about choice....My wife's choice is she can either sign over to the Federal Government the right to investigate every aspect of her life (including fingerprinting, credit check, medical records, character references, etc.) or she can "voluntarily" choose to not be allowed entry into the building wherein she works. The choice is hers.

....NASA, of course, has many top secret projects, projects which require high security. No one questions the need for high security and detailed background checks for specific, highly sensitive projects. This is perfectly reasonable.

But the Federal Government under Bush is now insisting that ALL employees, contractors, students, etc. associated with NASA agree to allow an investigation into their lives should the Federal Government deem it necessary for any reason.

Basically, if you want to work for NASA in any capacity, you're now required to sign away your privacy rights in advance. Ditto for just about any other government agency that decides to implement this directive. It's just another lovely little policy being "institutionalized" for George Bush's successor.

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FEEL THE LOVE....Bill Sammon talks to a "senior White House official" for his new book, The Evangelical President, and gets an early read on how the GOP plans to react after they lose the 2008 election:

Democrats understand the negative consequences of moving too quickly to reverse Bush's Iraq policy [he said]. The official noted that in the wake of Vietnam, anti-war Democrats "suffered for 20-some-odd years because they were identified as the party, when it came to national security, of being weak."

...."One of two things will happen if a Democrat gets elected president," he said. "They will either have to withdraw U.S. troops in order to remain true to the rhetoric — in which case, any consequences in the aftermath fall on their heads. Or they have to break their word, in which case they encourage fratricide on the left of their party. Now that's a thorny issue to work through."

Yes indeedy. If Iraq fails, all the consequences will fall directly on Democratic heads. Democratic heads. With a capital D. You can almost feel the knife twisting. Do you think he managed to deliver that line to Sammon with a straight face?

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REPUBLICANS AND RACE....Bob Herbert looks at the recent antics of the Republican Party and decides it's time for a history lesson:

The G.O.P. has spent the last 40 years insulting, disenfranchising and otherwise stomping on the interests of black Americans....This is the party of the Southern strategy — the party that ran, like panting dogs, after the votes of segregationist whites who were repelled by the very idea of giving equal treatment to blacks.

....In 1981, during the first year of Mr. Reagan's presidency, the late Lee Atwater gave an interview to a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University, explaining the evolution of the Southern strategy:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger,' " said Atwater. "By 1968, you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."

Lovely man, Lee Atwater.

In related news, today is the 50th anniversary of school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, an event memorialized for all time in the photo on the right, taken by Arkansas Democrat photographer Will Counts. Vanity Fair has a terrific piece up on their website framed around that photograph and the two high school students it captured: Elizabeth Eckford, one of the original Little Rock Nine, and Hazel Bryan, the white student screaming at her in the background. It's worth a read.

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September 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EDWARDS ON EDUCATION....A "West Point" for teachers? I'll hold off on endorsing that idea until it gets fleshed out a little more. But John Edwards' new education plan also includes this:

No Child Left Behind used cheap standardized tests to measure our children's learning, failed to accurately identify struggling schools, and mandated unproven cookie-cutter solutions for our schools' problems. Edwards will totally overhaul it so it meets its goals of helping all children learn through accurately identifying and improving struggling schools. Based on North Carolina's successful education reforms, Edwards proposed a School Success Fund to allow teams of experienced educators to spend a year at struggling schools helping launch reforms.

If you're wondering just what problem Edwards is addressing here, check out "Hire Ed," by Marc Tucker and Tom Toch from our March 2004 issue. It turns out that identifying failing schools — let alone turning them around — is a lot harder than you think.

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIORITIES....First we got two solid weeks of Republicans screeching over the MoveOn ad. Then we got Republicans screeching over the possibility that maybe the New York Times didn't charge MoveOn enough for their ad. Now we have Republicans screeching about cutting off Columbia University's funding because it provided a forum in which people could laugh at the inanities of Iran's current president.

That's a lot of screeching over trivia. Don't Republicans have anything better to do?

No? Well, OK then.

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TURKEY....Based on a few recent news reports, Headline Junky gets gloomy:

Iran is a sexy story right now, and rightfully so. But when the dust of history settles on the Iraq War, I'm not sure that the unleashing of Iran will rate as its most significant adverse outcome. That honor might very well go to the deterioration of the American-Turkish strategic alliance. Because unlike Iraq or Iran, which we never really stood a chance of winning over, Turkey was already on our side. And we're in the process of losing it, at the very moment when religious Muslims have begun to dominate the Turkish political scene.


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By: Kevin Drum

HY-PHENS....The good folks at the OED have decided to remove hyphens from 16,000 words. Reuters provides some examples:

Formerly hyphenated words split in two: fig leaf, hobby horse, ice cream, pin money, pot belly, test tube, water bed.

Formerly hyphenated words unified in one: bumblebee, chickpea, crybaby, leapfrog, logjam, lowlife, pigeonhole, touchline, waterborne.

"Ice cream" used to be hyphenated? Really? Was this a British thing? Even the New Yorker isn't pretentious enough to hyphenate "ice-cream," is it?

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WHAT DOTCOM BUBBLE?....The Wall Street Journal is running a blurb claiming that Microsoft is in talks to purchase Facebook for $10 billion. Just thought I'd pass that along for all you Facebook fans out there.

UPDATE: Apparently they're in talks not to buy Facebook, but to buy a 5% stake in Facebook that would implicitly value the company at $6-10 billion. Duly noted.

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By: Kevin Drum

GROUND ZERO....Ezra Klein says Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is winning the PR war against America:

To state what's implicit in my earlier commentary on the Amedinejad interview a bit more clearly, we're letting Ahmadinejad win this game. America's dodging his invitations to talk, growing hysterical over his requests to lay a wreath at Ground Zero, and interviewing him in a way that makes our press look like White House puppets. This makes us look bad, not him.

Now, I agree that we ought to talk to Iran, we ought to let Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia, and Scott Pelley probably went overboard in his 60 Minutes interview last night. We should be trying to back off the war fever, not whip it up.

Still, I guess I'm curious about something. Am I the only liberal who believes all that stuff but is still pretty queasy about letting this lunatic engage in some wreath-laying crocodile tears at Ground Zero? There's a difference between being unafraid to let someone speak and being unwilling to let him use the most venerated site in the country for a crass PR stunt, isn't there? Hell, a lot of us complain when Rudy Giuliani does this, let alone a guy who denies the Holocaust and has made a career out of chanting "Death to America." Am I off base here?

UPDATE: So far comments are running approximately 100% against me. Hmmm.

UPDATE 2: But Becks agrees with me!

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (157)

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GREENS AND THEIR HAIR SHIRTS....UN head honcho Ban Ki-moon today endorsed immediate action on climate change. Me too! I'm glad the SecGen and I are on the same page.

And while we're on the subject, did you read Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger's latest environmental contrarianism in the New Republic last week? Basically, they argue that we liberals should stop droning on and on about regulation because (a) it won't work and (b) it's a bummer:

Environmental lobbyists in Washington today are overwhelmingly focused on addressing global warming through two overlapping strategies. First, they want to establish a cap on greenhouse gases that decreases over time. Second, they want to make clean-energy sources cost-competitive by increasing the cost of dirty energy.

....[But] the challenge is simply too large....Even if economies were to become much more efficient, the total terawatts needed to bring all of humankind out of poverty would still need to roughly double by 2050 and triple by century's end.

....In promoting the inconvenient truth that humans must limit their consumption and sacrifice their way of life to prevent the world from ending, environmentalists are not only promoting a solution that won't work, they've discouraged Americans from seeing the big solutions at all. For Americans to be future-oriented, generous, and expansive in their thinking, they must feel secure, wealthy, and strong.

Up to a point, I agree. Gloom and doom isn't a big seller, and energy use will almost certainly increase whether we like it or not. So N&S propose that environmentalists should take off their hair shirts and instead start pushing for a technological revolution that slashes the cost of green-friendly energy sources. What's needed are "disruptive clean-energy technologies that achieve non-incremental breakthroughs in both price and performance."

Fine. But then they start to lose me:

The kind of technological revolution called for by energy experts typically does not occur via regulatory fiat. We did not invent the Internet by taxing telegraphs nor the personal computer by limiting typewriters. Nor did the transition to the petroleum economy occur because we taxed, regulated, or ran out of whale oil. Those revolutions happened because we invented alternatives that were vastly superior to what they replaced and, in remarkably short order, became a good deal cheaper.

And, contrary to conventional wisdom, private firms rarely initiate technological revolutions. Indeed, government has always been at the center of technological innovation, and most of America's largest industries have benefited from strategic government investments in their development....Big, long-term investments in new technologies are made only by governments and are almost always motivated by concerns about national security or economic competitiveness, from the threat of the Soviet Union in the 1950s to OPEC in the '70s.

Now, I'm a big fat liberal and I just love me some big fat government spending on worthy social projects. But even I think N&S are pretty wildly overstating the effect of government spending on technological progress. Sure, the feds can jump start things with cheap land for railroad barons or big contracts for microchips, but neither enterprise would have gone anywhere without dreams of private sector riches driving things as well. Synfuels, for example, were a boondoggle even though we tossed plenty of money at it, and one of the reasons was that oil was too cheap to convince anyone that there was any way to make money out of a replacement. So entrepreneurs just grapped the federal dough and ran.

I'm all for disruptive green technology, and N&S are probably right to say that environmentalists should focus on it more. But a big part of a successful federal green initiative involves not just promoting R&D, but creating a regulatory structure that provides long-term incentives for corporations to do more than go through the motions. Seed money is useful, but the businesses doing the R&D will turn the whole thing into a backwater unless they're convinced there's a huge market down the road for their disruptive wares — and that means a credible belief that the cost of dirty energy technologies are going to stay high. A well-conceived regulatory structure can help that happen, and also helps promote evolutionary technologies while we wait for the big breakthrough. Why not support both?

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THE TRAP....In The Trap, Daniel Brook argues that we have a cruel new problem in America: do-gooder jobs at nonprofits don't pay enough to support a middle-class lifestyle, and this is forcing young college grads into a hideous choice between living frugally or else taking a corporate job.

Now, I admit it: this doesn't strike me as anything either especially new or especially hideous, and as I was reading Doron Taussig's review of The Trap in the October issue of the Monthly, a few other things came to mind as well. When I read about the 27-year-old activist making $35,000 per year fighting global sex trafficking, for example, I thought: Hey, that's about what I made (adjusted for inflation) back when I was that age. And I was working at an aggressively for-profit enterprise at the time. It also occurred to me that the median income for 25-34 year olds is $27,000, which means that our activist friend isn't really doing all that badly, even if she does live in New York City. And anywhere else she'd be doing more than OK. And finally, I got pretty annoyed by passages like this: "Today, many young people are interested in public service....But when it comes time to pay the bills, we go into the corporate world, enduring long, meaningless hours, and often cognitive dissonance, because it's the only sector of the economy that can afford to pay enough for what was formerly considered a middle-class life."

Call me hypersensitive, but up until a few years ago I spent my entire life working in the "corporate world." And guess what? I didn't think my hours there were long and meaningless! In fact, I thought it was pretty respectable and rewarding work. If you want to work for a nonprofit, that's great, but can we please knock off the flower-child hyperventilating about the alternatives all amounting to "selling out"?

So far, though, I'm just kvetching — and I know you guys are going to ream me for it in comments. I'm sure I deserve it for this Scrooge-like attitude. What's more, I'll bet Brook anticipated exactly this reaction from a lot of people. But then I got to this part of the review:

Comparisons to previous decades are also complicated by the fact that the number of Americans employed by nonprofits doubled between 1977 and 2001, a much faster growth rate than both the government and for-profit sectors, according to the research group Independent Sector.

Huh? Doesn't this blow apart the entire premise of the book? If the nonprofit sector is growing faster than either the government or corporate sector, that must mean that lots of people are finding it perfectly possible to work for them. It might very well require a sacrifice of some kind (either from you or your spouse), but apparently an awful lot of people are finding that sacrifice both possible and worthwhile.

So what's the problem? I don't doubt that there's a subculture of Ivy League graduates living in big cities who simply aren't willing to work for less than a six-figure salary, but just how widespread can The Trap really be if the nonprofit sector is doing so handsomely? Color me unconvinced.

On the other hand, let me say that I agree completely with Brook about one thing: it's a crime that we don't have universal healthcare in America, and I hope we manage to change that sometime soon. My guess is that it would help only slightly with the problem he's writing about, but it would still be a great idea.

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September 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Summer is over. Today is the first day of fall. Happy leaf raking!

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BLACKWATER UPDATE...The Iraqi government confirmed today that it has videotape of the Blackwater shooting incident from last week:

Iraqi investigators have a videotape that shows Blackwater USA guards opened fire against civilians without provocation in an incident last week in which 11 people died, a senior Iraqi official said Saturday. He said the case had been referred to the Iraqi judiciary.

.... Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said Iraqi authorities had completed an investigation into Thursday's shooting in Nisoor Square in western Baghdad and concluded that Blackwater guards were responsible for the deaths.

He told The Associated Press that the conclusion was based on witness statements as well as videotape shot by cameras at the nearby headquarters of the national police command.

How conclusive is this videotape? On the one hand, apparently conclusive enough that Iraqi officials are claiming they plan to bring criminal charges against the Blackwater shooters. On the other hand, perhaps in a sign that compromise is on the way, at least one Iraqi spokesman is already making conciliatory noises:

"If we expel this company immediately there will be a security vacuum that will demand pulling some troops off the battlefield," Tahseen Sheikhly, a civilian spokesman for the seven-month-old offensive against militants in Baghdad and surrounding areas. "This will create a security imbalance in securing Baghdad."

David DeVoss who spent six months in Iraq working for USAID, describes his first encounter with a Blackwater guard: "The look was designed to inspire dread, but it was carried to such cartoonish extremes that the man resembled Yosemite Sam more than the Terminator." More here.

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ONE BIG UNHAPPY FAMILY....Newsweek has a short piece in its current issue about squabbling at the highest ranks in al-Qaeda:

This summer [Omar] Farooqi and other Taliban sources told Newsweek that a split had emerged in Al Qaeda between the organization's powerful Egyptian faction, led by Zawahiri, and its Libyan wing over jihadist strategy. Ever since the 2001 collapse of the Taliban, Zawahiri has been plotting to kill his nemesis, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, narrowly missing twice in 2003. But the Libyans, led by Abu Yahya al-Libi, had argued that Al Qaeda's resources should be focused on supporting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq and fomenting terrorism in the West.

The Egyptian-Libyan feud may now be history, though, thanks to Musharraf's decision in July to storm the radical Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad, during which the mosque's radical leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi was killed. Within days, Zawahiri issued a video calling on Pakistanis to "revolt." Soon afterward, al-Libi followed suit. Even bin Laden, who had never before called on Pakistanis to rise up against Musharraf, did so in his latest audiotape.

According to this story, bin Laden finally got tired of his underlings sidelining him on the pretext that it was necessary for security reasons, and that's why he began speaking out again. I don't have anything in particular to say about this, but just thought it was interesting terrorist gossip. Make of it what you will.

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September 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DURABILITY....I'm obviously short of inspiration for blogging this weekend, so here's another trivial topic: what items have you bought that had spectacular levels of durability that you never expected? I don't just mean things that lasted a long time, but things that seemed phenomenal in some very specific way. I'll mention two.

#1: An old NEC monitor I had about 15 years ago. It was amazing. It never got dusty and it never needed cleaning. Fingerprints just vanished. I don't know what sort of magical pixie dust they applied to the glass, but it was miraculous.

#2: The EckAdams chair I'm sitting in right now. Once a day for about the last ten years Inkblot has jumped into it and clawed the living daylights out of the fabric. For about a minute he goes bananas and digs into it as if it's every cat's worst enemy. And yet....it's still in perfect condition. Like the day I bought it. What sort of space age material is the thing made out of? Whatever it is, I wish our very expensive living room carpet were made out of the same stuff.

Needless to say, the list of things that collapsed into ruin far faster than they should have would be considerably longer. But let's leave that for another day. Today we celebrate durability.

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WEEKEND POSER....When you're home alone, do you close the door when you use the bathroom? Please explain your answer to this vital question of national security in 25 words or less.

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September 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WIND-UP RUDY REVISITED....Speaking of Rudy the buffoon, America's Mayor addressed the NRA today and was asked if he still supports the lawsuit against gun manufacturers that he initiated in 2000. You'll be unsurprised to learn that now that he's running for president, the answer is no. Still, he had to provide some excuse for changing his mind, and aside from mumbling something about "several turns and several twists" that the lawsuit had taken, here's what he said:

I also think there have been subsequent intervening events, September 11th, which cast somewhat of a different light on the Second Amendment and Second Amendment rights. Doesn't change the fundamental rights, but maybe it highlights the necessity for them more.

Does this make even the slightest sense? In what possible way did 9/11 affect gun rights? Perhaps someone on his staff could explain?

Asked to explain Mr. Giuliani's remarks that his views on guns were shaped by Sept. 11, a campaign spokeswoman said, "he was making a point that personal rights such as the 2nd Amendment are even more critical in a post-September 11th world."

Crikey. How much more obvious can his campaign make it that he doesn't have the slightest idea what he's talking about and was just randomly inserting a 9/11 reference because he figured it sounded good?

This is, once again, Rudy the wind-up doll. He's got a small supply of stock phrases (9/11, lower taxes, crime fighter) and he just hauls out whichever one seems handiest for the moment. Actual knowledge of anything necessary to be president? None.

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Fun and games yesterday. On the left, Domino has snagged a prime piece of sunny real estate for her morning nap, while Inkblot snoozes on the table above her. Then some guy with a camera barges in and Inkblot wakes up and starts looking around. Guess what he sees?

You can guess how this ends, right? Eventually Inkblot couldn't control his inner demons any longer and decided to leap down and, um, play. Domino didn't want to play. Much merriment ensued. In matters like these, Inkblot is about as predictable as Dick Cheney, I'm afraid.

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By: Kevin Drum

CHANGING THE SUBJECT....Matt Yglesias provides an insider lefty look at the "General Betrayus" ad foofaraw:

I completely agree with the dread DC Establishment that calling General Petraeus "General Betrayus" was dumb. That said, I'm staggered by the amount of emphasis that people inside this town are placing on this. One virtue of having moved to the Beltway is that I can tell you, the reader, a thing or two about the mood here and that while you might think the reverse is true, the truth of the matter is that the left-of-center establishment is being restrained in terms of expressing its absolutely fury at MoveOn over this. People seem to really think that this was not merely a misstep, but a huge blunder of world-historical proportions.

Matt thinks this view is nuts, but I guess I'd point out something else. (Aside from the fact that I'm glad I don't live in the Beltway and can therefore ignore stuff like this if I want.) If there's anything interesting to be drawn from the reaction to MoveOn's ad, it's the Republican reaction. I mean, they've practically been slathering over this ad for two straight weeks now. Am I the only one who thinks this shows a desire to change the subject so palpable as to be almost desperate? You can practically feel the flop sweat rolling down their cheeks. These guys want to talk about anything other than the underlying reality of what's going on in Iraq. Anything. It would be kind of creepy if it weren't, you know, actually important.

UPDATE: I see that Michael Kinsley got here before me. After a bit of mockery aimed at all those conservative tough guys getting the vapors over the MoveOn ad, he gets to the point:

The constant calls for political candidates to prove their bona fides by condemning or denouncing something somebody else said or to renounce a person's support or to return her tainted money are a tiresome new tic in American politics. They're turning politics into a game of "Mother, May I?" Did you say "Here is my plan for health-care reform"? Uh-oh, you were supposed to say "I condemn MoveOn.org's comments on General Petraeus, and here is my plan for health-care reform."

All this drawing of uncrossable lines and issuing of fatuous fatwas is supposed to be a bad habit of the left. When right-wingers are attacking this habit rather than practicing it, they call it political correctness. The problem with political correctness is that it turns discussions of substance into arguments over etiquette. The last thing that supporters of the war want to talk about at this point is the war. They'd far rather talk about this insult to General Petraeus. It just isn't done in polite society, it seems, to criticize a general in the middle of a war.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (197)

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By: Kevin Drum

RUDY THE BUFFOON....Rudy Giuliani told a crowd today that he'd like to lower taxes on the rich by eliminating the AMT, but that the only fair way to do this is if we also lower taxes on the rich by making the Bush tax cuts permanent:

Giuliani told the 700-member audience of the Northern Virginia Technology Council that he wants to cap the tax, and perhaps eventually eliminate it altogether.

"Over time we can figure out how to eliminate it....If we were going to eliminate it, though, we'd have to balance it with additional tax cuts," Giuliani said, leaving confused expressions on his audience. "That might be by making the Bush tax cuts permanent."

Even a local Democrat who heard the speech was willing to give Rudy the benefit of the doubt on this: "I do think he may have misspoke," said Gerry Connolly, the chairman of Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors.

Please. Just for once, can we hold this guy responsible for what he says? Sure, he misspoke, but he misspoke because he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about and blurted out the first thing that came to mind: namely that reducing taxes is the answer to every question. Nobody with even the vaguest idea of what it meant to eliminate the AMT would say that it had to be balanced by reducing other taxes.

Remember when George Bush wasn't able to name the president of Pakistan back in the 2000 campaign? Everyone laughed it off. But this isn't a game of gotcha. Nobody forces Rudy to say this stuff. He just flatly doesn't know what he's talking about. He's a buffoon. It's time for the press corps to take notice and quit giving him a pass on this stuff.

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (115)

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By: Kevin Drum

ADVERTISING ON THE NET....John Quiggin remarks on a downside of the failure of TimesSelect: "The Times decision has been motivated not only by the increasing costs of a closed system but by the increasing returns to advertising....In my experience, growing returns to advertising are being manifested in more, and more obtrusive, ads."

No kidding. Full page ads, blinking ads, Flash ads, ads that float over text, ads that expand suddenly as you're reading, audio tracks that turn on if you merely roll your mouse over the wrong spot — Madison Avenue's options for driving us nuts seem to be endless. But aside from the sheer annoyance factor of all this, there's yet another downside: advertising may increasingly be the only game in town, as John says, but the annoyance arms race is being driven largely by the decreasing effectiveness of web advertising. Clickthrough rates tend to be pretty abysmal on the internet, and advertisers are desperate for some way to actually grab readers' attention. But of course there's only so much they can do. At some point, if I don't need a new mortgage on my house, I'm just not going to read their mortgage refi ad.

Which is all bad news for the internet. Eventually advertisers are going to figure out that bigger, louder ads don't accomplish much and their conclusion will be a dismal one: (a) ads are the only source of revenue on the internet, and (b) ads are a pretty meager source of revenue on the internet — and there's not much to be done about it. A few search engines will do OK, but destination sites are going to be left without any viable revenue model at all. At that point, we will all be dependent on the kindness of strangers. (And Web 2.0 user-generated content.)

But who knows? The day is young and advertisers are nothing if not persistent and clever. Maybe eventually they'll figure out a way to jack their messages directly into our brainstems despite our best efforts to ignore them. The arms race is young.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SYRIA-NORTH KOREA NUCLEAR CONNECTION....I don't know how closely you've all been following the story of the Israeli air strike in Syria a couple of weeks ago, but in one of the initial accounts of the raid the New York Times slipped in a suggestion that the target of the attack was a nuclear installation that had been acquired from North Korea. It was kind of weird because this allegation popped up casually in about the seventh paragraph of the story and then popped back out without a trace.

Since then the nuclear story has continued to putter along in the background, but most observers have discounted it. The consensus seemed to be that it was just some garden variety saber rattling, maybe from Cheney's shop, and in fact the raid was actually a test of Syrian air defenses or perhaps a dry run for attacking Iran. Or a raid against a Hezbollah weapons dump. Or something.

Well, maybe so. But today the Washington Post has a long front-page story that puts the nuclear scenario front and center again. The whole thing is still murky, since everyone seems to agree that it doesn't really make sense, but it's now pretty hard to ignore. Either someone is dead serious about planting some disinformation about a Syria-North Korea nuclear connection in the press, or else there really is such a connection. I don't know what to think about it myself, but it's now officially a story to follow.

Kevin Drum 2:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ....Via FDL, Patrick Graham has an entertaining and provocative cover story about Iraq in the Canadian news magazine Macleans this week. Here he is on the Shiite government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki:

Maliki has been accused of running an "ethno-sectarian" government, but accusing him of running a pro-Shia government is like accusing Bush of running a pro-Republican administration. Like Karl Rove, who hoped to make the Republican party supreme, Maliki seems to want to set up Shia-dominated rule that will control Iraq for generations. And like Rove, he focuses on his base, with little regard for any other point of view unless the U.S. pressures him (even then he pouts and makes vague threats about looking for other allies — by which he obviously means Iran).

....The great irony of Maliki is that under other circumstances a government like his — one that is: a) accused by the U.S. of close relations with an American enemy (Iran); b) running a strategically important country (like Iraq); c) involved in the oppression and murder of one of its minorities (the Sunnis), which is closely linked to an important U.S. ally (the Saudis) — is an administration that many Americans would want to eliminate. There is a good chance that if the U.S. Army wasn't there already, Washington would have invaded to get rid of Maliki.

Graham has spent a lot of time in Iraq and has interesting opinions on a wide variety of subjects, including al-Qaeda in Iraq (American PR helped create it); military progress on the ground (largely illusory); the level of corruption in the various ministries ("astonishing"); Iranian meddling (you don't have to be a neocon to know it's for real); the American diplomatic strategy (we've switched horses in midstream from Shia to Sunni); soft partition (forget it); and bad metaphors (don't think of Iraq as if it were the Balkans).

I don't know if Graham is on target with everything he says, but his piece has lots of nice detail and it's worth reading. Check it out.

UPDATE: Robert Waldmann is unimpressed with Graham's piece: "The article contains few facts and many of those which I can check are wrong." He's right that the piece is opinionated and largely unsourced, but I'm not sure his disagreements with Graham are really all that colossal. Still, it's a worthwhile reality check.

Kevin Drum 1:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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September 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FOUR FRIEDMANS AGO....I was rooting around in my archives earlier today and happened to run across an interview from 2005 with (then) Maj. Gen. Douglas Lute, the guy who was appointed "war czar" back in May. Here's what he said two years ago:

The US is expected to pull significant numbers of troops out of Iraq in the next 12 months in spite of the continuing violence, according to the general responsible for near-term planning in the country.

....He said: "We believe at some point, in order to break this dependence on the...coalition, you simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward.

"You have to undercut the perception of occupation in Iraq. It's very difficult to do that when you have 150,000-plus, largely western, foreign troops occupying the country."

.... Last week, Gen Peter Schoomaker, US army chief of staff, said his office was planning for the possibility that troop levels could be maintained until 2009. But Maj Gen Lute said such a worst-case scenario was unlikely.

"I will tell you this, as the operation officer of Centcom, if a year from now I've got to call on all those army troops that Gen Schoomaker is prepared to provide, I won't feel real good about myself," he said.

Just thought I'd share. I wonder if this explains why he's not exactly keeping a high profile in his new job?

Kevin Drum 9:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOLD ON TO YOUR WALLETS....Earlier today I was wondering if the Fed had reduced interest rates so dramatically because it believed things were even worse than the rest of us thought. I guess so:

Losses from sub-prime mortgages have far exceeded "even the most pessimistic estimates", US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has said.

....Mr Bernanke told the [House Committee on Financial Services] that US mortgage woes were set to continue — especially with adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). Proceedings for about 320,000 foreclosures — or repossessions — were begun in each of the first two quarters of 2007 he said, against an average of 225,000 per quarter in the past six years.


Kevin Drum 9:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

WESTEN ON THE WAR....Drew Westen has a piece in the New Republic today that perfectly illustrates my mixed feelings about him. First, here he is talking about what's wrong with Democratic waffling on the Iraq war:

When, in May, Democrats offered rationalizations about not having the votes to override a veto...and most importantly, when they backed down after they had repeatedly stated their principled opposition to the war, they did nothing but to underscore the message Americans — appropriately — took away from the Iraq war vote in May, and will do again if Democrats continue to back down: that Democrats lack the courage of their convictions.

.... The way to win the center on national security is not to try to craft centrist positions on national security....The way to project strength on national security and to win back the Reagan Democrats who voted for Bill Clinton (despite his draft record) and flirted with the Democratic Party again in 2006 is to exude strength, particularly in the face of aggression, whether that aggression is from al Qaeda or from a bully in his bully pulpit.

That strikes me as exactly right. But what form should a stronger opposition take? Here's Westen a couple of paragraphs previously:

Democrats should pass a bill, call it what it is (the "Protection of Our Men and Women in Uniform Act"), stick with it until the president signs it into law or enough Republicans, fearing for their political lives, jump ship and vote for it, and start a running tally of the number of dead and wounded American soldiers since [fill in your Republican incumbent's name here] failed to support our troops by taking them out of the middle of someone else's civil war. If Republicans want to filibuster, let them live with the consequences as the name and photograph of every new fallen solder is tied to the person at the podium, as it should be.

This strikes me almost precisely the worst possible strategy. The last thing we want to do is convince the public that the reason Democrats want to pull out of Iraq is because our enemies have hit us too hard and we don't have the stomach to fight back. That's exactly the message this would send, and it's wrong on both substantive and psychological grounds. Republicans would eat us for lunch.

There are lots of powerful arguments in favor of withdrawing from Iraq. For starters, as Westen points out, we're stuck in the middle of a bloody sectarian civil war in which we have little stake. On the political front, the Iraqi government has no incentive to make necessary compromises as long as they know we'll stay and back them up no matter what. The surge hasn't changed this and doesn't seem likely to change it in the future. Finally, and more broadly, our presence fuels the very insurgency we're fighting and makes Iraq into al-Qaeda's richest recruiting grounds, all the while sucking troops away from Aghanistan and the Pakistani border, al-Qaeda's real home and primary training ground. Fundamentally, our national security is served better by pulling out of Iraq than by staying.

Those are good reasons for leaving Iraq. But nobody who's even within shouting distance of the political center wants to believe that we're leaving simply because we're too weak-kneed to accept casualties — and they won't thank any political party that forces that notion down their throats. It makes them feel cowardly. The focus needs to be not on the fact that soldiers are dying, but that they're dying for a bad cause. Back to the drawing board.

Kevin Drum 8:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT DOES THE FED KNOW THAT THE REST OF US DON'T?....McClatchy suggests one reason why the Fed might have surprised everyone with a bigger rate cut than expected:

In a special report, Wachovia economists said Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and five Fed governors met earlier this month with heads of the nation's major home builders and may have gotten a peek at sales and cancellation data.

"We believe those data showed a significant deterioration in home sales, which may be evident in next week's new and existing home sales reports," the report said, predicting a drop in new and existing home sales of 10 percent or more for August....Such a sour outlook might explain why the Fed surpassed most expectations that it would cut its benchmark interest rate by only a quarter point.

This is a good excuse to ask a question that always crosses my mind when the Fed does something "unexpected" — in this case cutting interest rates by half a percent instead of a quarter percent.

Obviously, a big rate cut has some substantive effects on the economy (and on equity prices in particular), which is why the stock market rallied and everyone was so happy. But there's a flip side, isn't there? If the Fed cuts rates more than expected, doesn't that also mean that the Fed is more worried than everyone thought it was? And isn't it possible, as in the case of the housing figures mentioned in the Wachovia report, that this is because they know some bad news the rest of us don't? Shouldn't that worry us?

Kevin Drum 3:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

ACCOUNTABILITY....Liz Cox Barrett at the Columbia Journalism Review:

The Associated Press's Ron Fournier drops this little truism into the midst of his "analysis" piece today:

"A political attack doesn't need to be right to work..."

No, but one thing a political attack does need to work — whether it's right or wrong — is for reporters to give it a thorough airing, to ensure that it gets proper traction with voters. Which is what Fournier does with today's piece, headlined: "Analysis: Is Edwards Real or a Phony?"

Well, is he? Huh? Is he? Can you guess?

UPDATE: Brendan Nyhan is even more appalled than Barrett: "Can we expect an equivalent approach to covering the GOP candidates? ('Giuliani: Sane or Crazy?')"

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLACKWATER UPDATE....Apparently the Blackwater incident is not settling down:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Wednesday demanded that the U.S. Embassy here replace the private security company Blackwater USA because of its involvement in a weekend shooting incident that reportedly left 11 Iraqis dead.

....At a news conference, an angry Maliki said North Carolina-based Blackwater, which has nearly 1,000 employees in Iraq, was also responsible for six similar shootings since being hired by the U.S. State Department to guard its diplomats after the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003...."This company should be punished," Maliki said. "We are not going to allow it to kill Iraqis in cold blood."

UC Irvine professor Deborah Avant points out that Maliki hasn't complained about any of these previous incidents, and may be using this one to help his own flagging political fortunes:

The chance to point a finger at one of the more controversial elements of U.S. strategy and put the United States on the hot seat even while sticking up for Iraqi sovereignty in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad is probably too good for him to pass up.

I suppose compromise is still the most likely outcome of this (as Avant points out, Maliki knows perfectly well that the U.S. can't operate in Iraq without private-security contractors), but the more it heats up the more dangerous compromise becomes. Maliki may be earning some credibility in Sunni quarters right now, but that's nothing compared to the credibility he'll lose if he's seen to back down. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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By: Kevin Drum

REVISING AND EXTENDING....Last week Arnold told California Republicans that the GOP was "dying at the box office." On Wednesday he explained what he really meant:

If I see you gaining weight and gaining weight and gaining weight, I would eventually — if I cared at all about you — I would say: "You know something? If you continue this way, you may get into serious trouble. You may get a heart attack or have problems with diabetes and stuff like that and can't move around as quickly and get tired.

"But here is what I would do if I were you: I would go and exercise every day, stop eating at night, eat only two meals, be disciplined and blah, blah, blah, all of those kind of things. I will give you a plan and you can follow it or not.

"So it's not I'm criticizing you. It just really means I care about you, and I want you to live and feel as good as I do and do as well as I do." And that's what I basically did with the Republican Party.

Also: he thinks Rudy will be the Republican nominee for president. Why? Because he's "the most consistent, stable person" out there. Hoo boy. The Republican Party must be in even worse shape than he thinks.

Kevin Drum 1:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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September 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORE WINGNUT FODDER....Dan Rather has filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS over their treatment of him following his infamous 60 Minutes segment about George Bush and the National Guard:

The portrait of Mr. Rather that emerges from the 32-page filing bears little resemblance to the hard-charging, seemingly fearless anchor who for two decades shared the stage with Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings as the most watched and recognizable journalists in America.

By his own rendering, Mr. Rather was little more than a narrator of the disputed broadcast, which was shown on Sept. 8, 2004, on the midweek edition of "60 Minutes" and which purported to offer new evidence of preferential treatment given to Mr. Bush when he was a lieutenant in the Air National Guard.

....Under pressure, Mr. Rather says, he delivered a public apology on his newscast on Sept. 20, 2004 — written not by him but by a CBS corporate publicist — "despite his own personal feelings that no public apology from him was warranted."

Rather is getting some very, very bad advice here. What he should be hoping for is that this entire incident sinks slowly and quietly out of sight. Instead, he's decided to reignite public interest in it by filing a lawsuit arguing that he was just reading from a script and never did anything wrong. This is not going to do wonders for his reputation.

Kevin Drum 5:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (173)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOP FILIBUSTERS....I see that Republicans have successfully filibustered two more bills today: one to give a House seat to the District of Columbia (57-42) and one to restore habeas corpus rights to terrorism suspects (56-43).

That seems like a good excuse to rerun this chart that McClatchy put together a couple of months ago. As you can see, Republicans aren't just obstructing legislation at normal rates. They're obstructing legislation at three times the usual rate. They're absolutely desperate to keep this stuff off the president's desk, where the only choice is to either sign it or else take the blame for a high-profile veto.

As things stand, though, Republicans will largely avoid blame for their tactics. After all, the first story linked above says only that the DC bill "came up short in the Senate" and the second one that the habeas bill "fell short in the Senate." You have to read with a gimlet eye to figure out how the vote actually broke down, and casual readers will come away thinking that the bills failed because of some kind of generic Washington gridlock, not GOP obstructionism.

So, for the record, here are the votes. On the habeas bill, Democrats and Independents voted 50-1 in favor. Republicans voted 42-8 against. On the DC bill, Democrats and Independents voted 49-1 in favor. Republicans voted 41-8 against. Would it really be so hard for reporters to make it clear exactly who's responsible for blocking these bills?

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

LION'S PAW....The Washington Post has an interesting story today about a "religious enlightenment" program the Army is running in one of its detention centers in Iraq. The idea, according to Maj. Gen. Doug Stone, is to recruit moderate imams to teach classes that promote a nonviolent interpretation of Islam:

The many religious leaders, all imams that we have working for us teach out of a moderate doctrine....once [the detainees] can actually read the words themselves and they believe the Koran they're reading — this is something that we changed, which is a bizarre thing but true — then they actually can begin a conversation between the two of them.

And since we've now run, you know, a few hundred through this program, we are over-the-top encouraged that two things are present. We are able to determine the guys that don't really give a shit about the Koran in the first place — they're using it as a discipline — those guys are beginning to fall into the category of irreconcilables, and that's helpful to me. I want to know who they are. They're like rotten eggs, you know, hiding in the Easter basket, so that's very helpful.

Then it's also equally helpful to have guys who come out and say, "I didn't know that. Now that I know that, I'm going to change my life." And we poly them. You'd be — interesting to know, because we were trying to figure out if they're messing with us. But we are convinced that they have made a significant change.

....Now, I'll tell you something that has never happened, in my recollection, in detention and happened on September the 2nd of this year. We had a compound of moderates, for the first time, overtake Takfirist extremists. It's never happened before. Found them, identified them, threw them up against the fence, and shaved the frickin' beards off of them. That — I mean, that is historic....And then the whole pledge and guarantor — I mean, we had a mother so overjoyed she fainted yesterday. You know, we've had detainees, you know, when we said to them, "Okay, which gate do you want to go out," just — you know, just over-ecstatic that they get to make a choice.

This sounds like a fairly standard counterinsurgency reeducation program, and it's probably useful if it doesn't jump the tracks. The problem, as with so many other things we're doing in Iraq, is with that "few hundred" number that Stone threw out. In a population of 25 million that's just not much. Stone claims he's "running a big factory here," but really, it's more like an artisan program and it doesn't sound like something that could be scaled up effectively. For more, the Post's summary story is here.

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

BOLD? INNOVATIVE?....Here's Barack Obama's "bold and innovative plan to reform America's tax code":

  1. A new $500 income tax credit for everyone who works and pays payroll taxes.

  2. A new mortgage interest tax credit for homeowners who can't currently take advantage of the existing mortgage tax deduction.

  3. Elimination of all income tax for seniors with incomes under $50,000 per year.

  4. A new program in which the IRS sends prefilled tax returns to people with simple taxes.

I know that it's unfair to expect Obama to live up to his own hype every day. Not every proposal from his campaign is really going to be bold and innovative, even if he says it is. But really, if he's planning to campaign as the guy with fresh ideas, he's going to have to do better than this.

#1 is basically a convoluted way of reducing payroll taxes. It's OK, I guess. #2 is dumb. Why should homeowners get even more special treatment than they get now? #3 is just special interest group pandering. There's no reason a senior citizen making $45,000 should be exempt from paying income tax. #4 is fine, but trivial, and doesn't actually change the tax code at all.

I know the Obama fans out there are going to jump all over this, but I have to say that the guy's losing me. He's an inspiring speaker, and given the realities of how presidents exercise power that's no small thing. But he sure is cautious to a fault. His big foreign policy speech was fine, but cautious and mainstream. His big healthcare speech was fine, but cautious and mainstream. And now his big tax speech is....just cautious and mainstream. I really want to hear something big and controversial from Obama, something that demonstrates a desire to shake up the status quo. But he just doesn't seem to be willing to take any chances. That's a shame.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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By: Kevin Drum

DING DONG, THE WITCH IS DEAD!....TimesSelect is no more. Krugman, Dowd, and Friedman are once again available to the masses. To celebrate, let's take a look at Bob Herbert's Tuesday column:

Like crack addicts confronting the irresistible vial, the evil geniuses of the G.O.P. can't seem to help themselves. This time — with an eye toward seizing the White House again next year, even if they lose the popular vote — they're trying to rewrite the rules for the distribution of electoral votes in California.

Hey, not bad for such a boring guy! The rest of the column isn't quite so zippy, but it's a start.

Of course, this also means that all the other Times columnists are once again roaming free. Today we have Tom Friedman (I've visited a bunch of obscure places lately and they're all growing really fast), Maureen Dowd (all the people I usually write about should have the good grace to stop making me write about them), and David Brooks (Defense Secretary Robert Gates is such a candid guy that he had either a ready-made cliche or a profound silence instantly available for every question I asked). Enjoy!

Kevin Drum 12:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NARRATIVE....Eric Alterman:

For the people who cover them for a living, elections are not about issues or evidence or even truth; they are about the narrative. Campaigns struggle to define it long before voters are paying attention — because once the narrative is determined, it's virtually impervious to revision.

Right. And for two of the three major Democratic presidential nominees the MSM narrative is already pretty clear: John Edwards is a phony (talks big about poverty but gets $400 haircuts); Hillary Clinton is ambitious and calculating (always on message, always has her eye on the prize). But what about Barack Obama? I haven't quite figured out what the MSM schtick on him is going to be. Luckily, it turns out that the Nattering Nabob of Narrative herself has chimed in. Alterman summarizes:

Most recently [Maureen] Dowd's peevishness has been directed toward Barack Obama. She finds the candidate "testy," "irritated," "hung-up," "conflicted" and "self-consciously pristine." Dowd took it personally when he gave a Labor Day speech in New Hampshire taking on business-as-usual Beltway politics. Dowd mocked Obama's "ranting about Washington pundits" by pointing out that he frequently graces the covers of magazines. This is quite a trick when you think about it. The media elite put Obama on magazine covers, and then the same media elite insist he is inauthentic for having appeared on magazine covers.

Dowd also accuses Obama of preening like a "46-year-old virgin," demonstrating "loose" body language and being "hung up on being seen as thoughtful," while secretly fearing "being seen as 'a dumb blond.'"

So that's that. Barack Obama Thinks He's Too Good For The Rest Of Us™. I guess we can look forward to seeing this meme spread far and wide. I can't wait.

Kevin Drum 12:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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September 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

LOOKING FOR THE SILVER LINING....Yes, yes, Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the United States according to the 2007 Urban Mobility Report released today. By way of example, the 7-mile stretch of the 405 that goes from my house to my mother's house is a one-hour trip at rush hour. I can't really figure out why, either, since it goes from nowhere to nowhere and clears up significantly within a mile or two of each end. Why that one special stretch? Beats me. But that's the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana SMSA for you.

Anyway, our national media, always reporting the bad news instead of the good, is naturally focusing on the most congested areas. But I say, how about congratulating the winners instead?

  • Congratulations Philadelphia, least congested among Very Large urban areas!

  • Congratulations Buffalo, least congested among Large urban areas!

  • Congratulations Akron and Rochester, least congested among Medium urban areas!

  • Congratulations Brownsville and Spokane, least congested among Small urban areas!

And that's your cheerful news for the day. If you happen to be planning to move to one of these cities, that is.

Kevin Drum 8:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

FAIR AND BALANCED....One of my longtime sparring partners insists that I post some good news about Iraq. Here it is:

The Baghdad hospitals are emptier. The Sunni Triangle — remember the deadly Sunni Triangle? — has been pacified to an amazing degree. Been following Totten at all in Ramadi? T. E. Lawrence might approve. Similar efforts are taking place among Shiites in the south, although that's going to be harder.

This is all good news, but the problem is that I'm not sure any of it really counts as new. We all know that violence is down in a few heavily-patrolled neighborhoods of Baghdad; the question is whether we can get similar results elsewhere without the same troop concentrations (and whether it will last when we redeploy elsewhere). Likewise, the Anbar Awakening has been extensively (and favorably) reported for months; the question is whether the Sunni tribes are really cooperating with us or are merely accepting our help temporarily until they've eliminated their internal enemies and are ready to start killing Americans again. And, sure, there are some efforts to replicate the Anbar strategy in the south; the question is whether we're making any serious progress on this. I haven't seen much evidence of it.

But, look: these are all potentially positive developments, and they've all shown up in various mainstream news reports. War critics shouldn't ignore them. The problem is that tidepools of encouraging news like this just don't seem very meaningful compared to the tsunami of violence we still hear about every day, the lack of any change in the underlying dynamics driving the violence, and the complete absence of any sign of political reconciliation. And that's not to even mention the growing refugee crisis, the massive sectarian cleansing ongoing in Baghdad, the continuing meltdown of Iraq's infrastructure, the intra-Shiite civil war picking up steam in Basra, the lack of improvement in the Iraqi army, and the conclusion of the Jones commission that Iraq's police force is so hopelessly sectarian it ought to be completely disbanded.

But click the links and decide for yourself.

Kevin Drum 5:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLIND TRUST....When he became governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour promised that he would sever all ties with Barbour Griffith & Rogers, his "little lobbyin' firm up in Washington, D.C." But did he? In the New Republic this week Noam Scheiber and Bradford Plumer raise some questions.

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOWBACK....Via Tapped, Noah Shachtman, who's currently reporting from Iraq, worries about blowback:

Sunni political and tribal leaders are increasingly throwing in their lot with U.S. forces here against Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent types. But, to get them to come over to our side, the American military has fed them a steady diet of anti-Shi'ite propaganda.

Arrests and killings of Shi'ite militants are announced from loudspeaker blasts; President Bush's bellicose rhetoric towards Shi'a Iran is reported on friendly radio programs. But the majority of this country is Shi'ite. Are we setting ourselves up as the enemies of the majority here? Are we priming the pump for an all-in sectarian battle royale? It seems like a possibility.

It's not clear whether Noah is talking about American actions in Anbar province, in Baghdad, or just in general. But either way, this is the danger of being in the middle of the civil war: it's pretty much impossible to curry favor with one side for very long without losing the favor of the other side. At the moment, we probably don't have any choice but to continue our alliance of convenience with the Sunni tribes, but as a long-term strategy it sure doesn't look like much of a winner.

For more about this from a very senior source, take another look at this post from a couple of weeks ago. Arming the Sunni tribes against the Shiite central government isn't just an accident, it's a deliberate part of our strategy. This is not likely to end happily.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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YET MORE QUESTIONS....Ilan Goldenberg reads the Pentagon's September report to Congress on stability and security in Iraq and notices something odd: you'd think that the Pentagon's civilian casualty figures (dead and wounded) and Gen. Petraeus's civilian fatality figures would track each other in some consistent way, but they don't — and they especially don't track each other during the surge.

Goldenberg charts the two lines here, and the main difference is that Petraeus's figures show a steady decline in fatalities since December while the Pentagon's casualty figures don't show any decline at all. Hmmm.

According to the MNC-I data there has been no improvement since either December (The numbers Petraeus and the Administration often cite) or February (when the surge actually began). Why wasn't Congress shown these numbers in the presentation by General Petraeus? Why only the good news numbers? Why the lack of clarity on Petraeus's sourcing? Especially since he himself acknowledged that the best numbers come from the MNC-I database.

....Overall, the numbers used by Petraeus have the same effect as all the other inconsistencies. They make the numbers right before the surge look extremely bad and the numbers during the surge look much better. Maybe that's just a coincidence. But it does raise more questions.

Yep. This might all be completely legit. Maybe we're the ones reading the data incorrectly. But why should we be playing these guessing games in the first place? Why doesn't the Pentagon simply release its figures to independent analysts and answer questions about its methodology forthrightly? What are they afraid of?

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

SPOON PRUNING....Yet another reason to hate the DMCA: Uri Geller is using it to force YouTube to remove old videos exposing him as a fraud. Did we really need another reason, though?

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WHY IS BOB HERBERT BORING?....More than likely, you love Paul Krugman and hate David Brooks. Or vice versa. But at least you feel something about them. Ditto for the rest of the New York Times' stable of columnists. Except for one of them: Bob Herbert. In the October issue of the Monthly, T.A. Frank tries to figure out what's wrong:

Herbert has one of the most powerful megaphones in the world with which to move elite opinion — that of policymakers, journalists, entertainers, businesspeople, and the millions of middle-class readers of the New York Times — and yet he doesn't move it. Twice a week, Herbert yells at them for their indifference. Twice a week, they slam the door and run out for a joyride with badboy David Brooks. If Herbert is a bridge between the problems that are neglected and the people who can fix them, then he should be closed for inspection.

Bob Herbert and his fans disagree with me, naturally. Herbert would say that he has helped shift public opinion on issues such as the suppression of black votes in Florida, the rendition of Maher Arar to Syria, and the death penalty. But what I see is that his most influential audience isn't usually paying attention. Maybe that's the fault of Bob Herbert, or maybe it's the fault of Beltway insularity, or maybe it's the fault of life itself. But anyone who wants to advance these crucial issues must figure out the answer to this question: Why is Bob Herbert boring?

That's a harsh question. But it's true, as a Nexis search confirms, that Herbert almost never drives the media agenda. People don't agree with him, and they don't disagree with him. They just ignore him — and the blogosphere is no better. A quick check of Google Blog returns about 100,000 hits for Krugman and Dowd and about 50,000 for Brooks, Friedman, and Rich. And Herbert, who is perhaps more reliably liberal and more reliably correct than any of the others? He gets 15,000 hits.

Why? I won't spoil the ending, but it turns out that Frank's piece has some surprisingly interesting things to say about Herbert's boredom quotient. Go read it. And when you're done, go read Herbert's latest column, about GOP dirty tricks in the state of California. Better yet, wait until midnight to click that link: that's when the Times paywall dies its long-awaited death and the whole world can read Herbert again.

Of course, the whole world will also be able to read Maureen Dowd once again. There's a cloud for every silver lining, isn't there?

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (117)

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September 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN McCAIN, SEMI-BAPTIST....The latest weirdness from the traveling carnival that is the Republican presidential campaign is John McCain's sudden assertion that he's not an Episcopalian, as he's always identified himself before, but a Baptist. In fact, he's been attending a Baptist church for 15 years. Only one problem: he's never been, um, baptized. "I didn't find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs," he told McClatchy a couple of months ago. Georgia cracker Ed Kilgore comments:

Well, you'd think anyone who's been attending a Baptist Church for 15 years might have caught wind of the fact that the denomination, as its name suggests, believes rather adamantly that baptism is necessary for salvation, a reasonably important "spiritual need" by most measurements.

And no, it wouldn't cut any ice with his fellow-Baptists if it turns out that McCain, like most Episcopalians, was baptized via sprinkling as an infant. Any kind of Baptist I've ever heard of holds that only a "believer's baptism" (i.e., at an age of consent) through full bodily immersion is valid. That's why their theological ancestors in Europe were contemptuously dubbed "Re-baptizers," or "Anabaptists."

I don't know why McCain has chosen to wander into this particular thicket. But the only way out I can imagine is if he asks Huckabee to baptize him during the next candidate debate.

The June McClatchy story is here:

McCain still calls himself an Episcopalian, but he said he began attending North Phoenix Baptist because he found "the message and fundamental nature more fulfilling than I did in the Episcopal church. ... They're great believers in redemption, and so am I."

I dunno. McCain may be a Baptist, but he sure doesn't sound especially convinced about it. Still, it'd be a shame to waste all that pandering he did to Jerry Falwell last year. Baptist it is!

UPDATE: Several commenters and emailers have written to correct Ed's theology. For example, gemini in comments:

I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church and can tell you that Baptists — at least Southern Baptists — do not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. Rather, they consider baptism an outward sign of an inward conversion. They baptize — and yes, only by immersion — anyone who "accepts Christ." But that acceptance is the only thing necessary for salvation.

And this via email:

Southern Baptists, the largest and most representative strain of evangelical Baptist denominations, believe that baptism is the second ordinance of the church (communion being the other), but while both are essential parts of the Christian's life after conversion, they do not save. Rather they are sanctifying activities that perfect the saint's redemption. Instead of asking if McCain has been baptized, most Baptists and/or evangelicals watching McCain in all this are going to ask: has he been saved? That is, has he had a personal experience with the Lord Jesus Christ, during which he prayed a sinner's prayer, asked forgiveness for his sin(s), and invited Christ into his heart for eternity?

Right. Faith, not works. Faith, not works. Faith.....

Kevin Drum 8:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

CLUELESSNESS ALERT....I don't know anything about Michael Mukasey, George Bush's nominee for Attorney General, but his 2004 Wall Street Journal op-ed supporting the Patriot Act gives cause to wonder if he has the three-digit IQ required for the job. Check this out:

I think one would have to concede that the USA Patriot Act has an awkward, even Orwellian, name, which is one of those Washington acronyms derived by calling the law "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Interrupt and Obstruct Terrorism." You get the impression they started with the acronym first, and then offered a $50 savings bond to whoever could come up with a name to fit.

Does this guy seriously think there's any question about whether the acronym or the title came first? Gimme a break.

Kevin Drum 8:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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HILLARY'S HEALTHCARE PLAN....Ezra Klein looks at Hillary Clinton's new plan for universal healthcare and finds himself impressed:

The Clinton plan opens the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program to everybody, ensuring that anyone can access the same menu of regulated private options that federal employees get.

The plan also creates a new public option, modeled off (but distinct from) Medicare. That's a big deal: The public insurer offers full coverage and is open to all Americans without restriction. Public insurance is what I feared her plan would avoid, and instead, she embraced it wholeheartedly.

[Various other good points, including an individual mandate, community rating for insurance companies, subsidies for low-income consumers, and limitations on employer tax deductions for healthcare.]

So the policy is very, very sound. The rhetoric is interesting too, being entirely about "choice." It's called the "American Health Choices Plan." The first section, on the opening of FEHBP and the creation of a new public insurer, is titled, "Providing a Choice of Insurance Plans." The first bullet point assures readers that every American will be able to keep their current coverage if they so desire. Etc, etc.

I'm not a big fan of individual mandates and private insurance companies, but in the spirit of Atrios's advice to "stop wanking," I also understand that my preferences just aren't on the table right now. And I have to say that I agree with Ezra: although the three leading Democratic presidential candidates have proposed healthcare plans that are similar in a lot of ways, Hillary's strikes me as not just substantively as good as any of them (and better in some ways), but also the politically savviest and most practical of the lot. Given her experience in 1994 (she knows what won't work) combined with the legislative canniness she seems to have developed in the Senate (she know what will work), that's not too surprising.

In any case, it's a good plan. Edwards and Obama are going to have a very hard time making criticisms that stick. Obama, in particular, suffers because his plan is, if anything, a bit less ambitious than Hillary's even though he's supposed to be the candidate with fresh new ideas. For now, anyway, I think Hillary has outflanked him.

Outflanked him on healthcare, anyway. Now, about the war in Iraq.....

POSTSCRIPT: I should add that I don't actually agree with Atrios's advice to "stop wanking." Policy discussions are useful regardless of whether they have any short-term prospect of being implemented, and pundits and analysts absolutely should bitch and complain about shortcomings even in policies they favor. Maybe especially in policies they favor. Still, sometimes you have to choose between options on the table, and that's where we are with healthcare right now. On that score, Hillary's plan looks pretty good.

UPDATE: Maggie Mahar has more details on HRC's plan here.

Kevin Drum 4:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLACKWATER....Well, this should be interesting:

The Iraqi government said today it had revoked the license of Blackwater USA, a private security company that guards U.S. Embassy personnel in Iraq, following a shootout in downtown Baghdad on Sunday that left at least nine people dead.

....The Iraqi government's position toward Blackwater set up a confrontation with the U.S. government over what legal authority governs the behavior of private security contractors here. Blackwater, which has an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq, plays a high-profile role because it guards U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and other diplomats.

....It was not immediately clear whether Iraq or the United States holds the authority to regulate Blackwater's operations....Lawrence T. Peter, the director of the Private Security Company Association Iraq, said that Blackwater was licensed by the Interior Ministry. But Blackwater acknowledged as recently as two months ago that a license it obtained in 2005 had lapsed, and the company was having trouble getting the license renewed.

The Bush administration can't be happy about this order. But the Maliki government is already hanging by a thread, and forcing them to back down on this after they've already gone public could deal them a death blow. Maybe there's a quiet compromise of some kind available here, but it looks to me like Blackwater needs to pack its bags.

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By: Kevin Drum

GREENSPAN AND THE TRIGGERS....Why did Alan Greenspan support George Bush's tax cuts back in 2001? He says two things in his own defense. First, he was afraid that continuing federal surpluses might eventually dry up the national debt and thus constrain monetary policy. Second, he did his best to argue for "triggers" in the tax bill that would eliminate the tax cuts if the budget went back into deficit.

Do these excuses hold water? Let's turn over the floor to Ron Suskind, who wrote about Greenspan, Bush, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and the tax cuts in his book The Price of Loyalty:

We're not going back into [deficit], Greenspan said. Paul nodded solemnly. For these two, it was a blood oath....But what happens to the big item, the tax cut, if the surpluses evaporate? he asked. "Triggers," O'Neill said. "A good enough idea, if it can be sold."....O'Neill smiled. "Think you could find a way to mention triggers in one of your upcoming pronouncements?" Greenspan smirked, "Why me?" "Because I thought of it," O'Neill said with a friendly gloat. "That means you have to sell it."

....[In congressional testimony in January, Greenspan] suggested that a future tax cut "could include provisions [that]...limit surplus-reducing actions if specified targets for the budget surplus and federal debt were not satisfied. Only if the probability was low that...initiatives would send the on-budget accounts into deficit, would unconditional initiatives appear prudent."

....[Later] O'Neill made his case for triggers [to President Bush]....The conviviality had burned off. Bush looked at him with the flat, inexpressive stare to which O'Neill had become accustomed. "I won't negotiate with myself," Bush finally said. "It's that simple. If someone comes to me with a plan for this, and they have a significant amount of political backing, I'll sit down with them — talk it out. But until then, it's a closed issue."

....[In May] Greenspan arrived at the Treasury for breakfast with O'Neill. Their secret trigger pact had come up one vote short...."The first big battle is over, really. I think we fought well, we made our points vigorously." Greenspan said that wasn't enough. "Without the triggers, that tax cut is irreponsible fiscal policy," he said in his deepest funereal tone. "Eventually, I think that will be the consensus view."

Nobody wins every battle, and when Greenspan essentially argues that he didn't realize at the time just how hackish the Bush administration was, it's hard not to sympathize. Still, these passages tell us several things:

  • Greenspan and O'Neill, far from being genuinely concerned with the risible idea that the national debt might decline to zero, were troubled mostly by the possibility of the tax cuts forcing the budget back into deficit.

  • Greenspan agreed to publicly "sell" the trigger idea. In the end, and despite flat warnings that his testimony was almost certain to be misunderstood, he did so only in a single cryptic piece of testimony early in 2001.

  • When O'Neill tried to sell triggers to the president, Bush told him directly that he wouldn't consider it unless there was outside pressure to do so.

  • Greenspan declined to apply any pressure via further public statements, despite his strong feeling that "Without the triggers, that tax cut is irreponsible fiscal policy."

I report, you decide. Was Greenspan really the political naif he paints himself as? Or did he know perfectly well what was going on and simply made a decision to stay quiet about it?

UPDATE: Paul Krugman adds:

If anyone had doubts about Mr. Greenspan's determination not to inconvenience the Bush administration, those doubts were resolved two years later, when the administration proposed another round of tax cuts, even though the budget was now deep in deficit. And guess what? The former high priest of fiscal responsibility did not object. And in 2004 he expressed support for making the Bush tax cuts permanent — remember, these are the tax cuts he now says he didn't endorse — and argued that the budget should be balanced with cuts in entitlement spending, including Social Security benefits, instead. Of course, back in 2001 he specifically assured Congress that cutting taxes would not threaten Social Security.

Kevin Drum 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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By: Kevin Drum

GREENSPAN ELABORATES....Alan Greenspan says in his new book that the Iraq war was "largely about oil," but fails to elaborate further. Today, in an interview with Bob Woodward, he explains what he meant:

He said that in his discussions with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, "I have never heard them basically say, 'We've got to protect the oil supplies of the world,' but that would have been my motive."

...."If Saddam Hussein had been head of Iraq and there was no oil under those sands," Greenspan said, "our response to him would not have been as strong as it was in the first gulf war. And the second gulf war is an extension of the first. My view is that Saddam, looking over his 30-year history, very clearly was giving evidence of moving towards controlling the Straits of Hormuz, where there are 17, 18, 19 million barrels a day" passing through.

Greenspan said disruption of even 3 to 4 million barrels a day could translate into oil prices as high as $120 a barrel — far above even the recent highs of $80 set last week — and the loss of anything more would mean "chaos" to the global economy.

Given that, "I'm saying taking Saddam out was essential," he said. But he added that he was not implying that the war was an oil grab.

"No, no, no," he said. Getting rid of Hussein achieved the purpose of "making certain that the existing system [of oil markets] continues to work, frankly, until we find other [energy supplies], which ultimately we will."

Let me get this straight. Greenspan dropped a single cryptic sentence into his book implying that the Bush administration's primary motivation for invading Iraq was oil. But now it turns out that he meant only that he thought the most important reason to invade Iraq was to stabilize global oil supplies. That's some sharp writing there, professor.

And anyway, what's up with the Straits of Hormuz stuff? That's a standard wingnut talking point for taking out Iran, but Saddam hadn't had even the remotest ability to screw up the Straits since at least 1991. What is Greenspan talking about?

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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RSS WOES....Bloglines has been really sucky lately. Anybody feel like recommending a better RSS reader? It doesn't have to be net-based. I chose Bloglines years ago thinking it would be handy for when I traveled, but as it turns out, I don't really travel much, and when I do I don't usually feel like obsessing over my RSS feeds anyway. So what's the reader that all the cool people are using these days?

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By: Kevin Drum

NEWTERED....Later today Hillary Clinton will be unveiling her healthcare plan. The New York Times reports on a few of the details:

Clinton aides said her plan would preserve a large role for private insurance companies; would promote the use of health information technology and low-cost generic drugs; and would create a public-private institute to evaluate and compare drugs, devices and medical treatments.

You all know what I think of preserving a large role for private insurance companies: boo hiss. But the "public-private institute to evaluate and compare drugs, devices and medical treatments" is another matter entirely. That's a great idea. Why? Because it turns out that we're almost stupifyingly ignorant of what works and what doesn't in the wild west of modern medicine, and nobody in the private sector really has any incentive to change that. They just want to keep selling stuff.

So what about the federal government? Well, back in the day we had an agency called AHCPR that had a small budget to compare and analyze medical therapies. Unfortunately, Newt Gingrich didn't like the idea of a federal agency potentially putting the kibosh on lucrative but useless medical technologies (makers of useless medical technologies contribute to political campaigns too, after all), so after he took over Congress he whacked it. Shannon Brownlee, author of Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, tells the whole story in "Newtered," upcoming in our October issue:

There is surprisingly little government oversight of medical practice. The Food and Drug Administration, which many people imagine oversees it, in fact only regulates the marketing of drugs and devices....When it comes to medical procedures, the FDA has zero authority to make sure they actually work. If your surgeon wants to try removing your appendix through your back, that's between you and your surgeon and the hospital.

....Of our more than $2 trillion national health care bill, we devote less than one-tenth of 1 percent to answering the myriad questions about what actually works in medicine. What's the best way to get people to lose weight and exercise in order to prevent heart disease and diabetes? Nobody knows. Is a cesarean section necessary if a woman's previous child was delivered by cesarean? Can a million-dollar da Vinci surgical robot, touted by many hospitals that have purchased the device, really improve outcomes, or is it just a fancy way to spend money? If a man has prostate cancer, which remedy is best? There are four different surgeries, several types of implantable radioactive seeds, and multiple external radiation regimens to choose from. Macular degeneration, a disease that causes blindness in 200,000 Americans each year, can be treated with one of two drugs, Lucentis or Avastin, but there's no head-to-head evidence to show which one is better, or which one is best for a particular patient.

....All of which points to the need for a national strategy for improving the evidence base of medicine. We need an independent agency that would fund systematic reviews of the medical literature, as well as clinical trials to test the comparative effectiveness of everything from drugs to treatments. An agency that could help Medicare and other payers know what to cover, and what's still experimental. An agency, in short, that would look a lot like the AHCPR probably would today if it hadn't been derailed in 1996.

It doesn't much matter who does it, as long as the job gets done. It could be a new institute, as Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have called for. The NIH could take it on, provided the director could be persuaded that testing existing treatments is as important as finding new cures. Or, it could be a beefed-up version of the AHRQ.

Read the whole thing for more. You'll learn all about cardiac stents, spinal fusion surgery, radical mastectomies, and aggressive chemotherapy. What do they all have in common? Two things: (a) they're expensive, and (b) they don't work as well as most doctors think.

This whole topic, by the way, is sort of the red-headed stepchild of the universal healthcare debate. Mostly we talk about how to fund universal care and how to cover everyone, but it's equally important to talk about strategies for reining in costs. A serious program does both.

Kevin Drum 12:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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September 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

ENDING THE WAR....Matt Yglesias suggests that, politically speaking, Democrats aren't really all that anxious to withdraw from Iraq:

Not only are Democrats afraid of taking certain kinds of political risks to end the war, but they see no prospect of a political upside to ending it. There was a fairly overwhelming belief in Washington in mid-to-late November 2006 that Republicans would start moving to end the war in January. It didn't happen, but then came the belief that they would start to abandon ship in September 2007, which also didn't happen. But given that Republicans aren't doing what everyone expected them to do and reducing their political exposure on Iraq by winding the war down, Democrats are disinclined to go out on a limb to do it for them.

That's true, but I'll take it even further. Consider all the political upsides and downsides of a bruising but eventually successful congressional battle to end the war.

Upsides first. From the antiwar left — and let's be honest here — a few congressional leaders who led the fight would get big props, but the rest of the Democratic caucus would get bupkis. Intead, we lefties would probably spend most of our time complaining that they were too late, that they only acted under pressure, that they didn't pull out enough troops, etc. etc. The odds of a genuine political lift are pretty small.

That's pretty much it for political upsides, such as they are. Now for the downsides. War supporters, of course, would go ballistic and start blaming every bad event on the planet on the Defeatocrats who pulled the plug on Iraq and betrayed our men and women in uniform. Squishy centrists, most of whom say we ought to withdraw, would probably be apprehensive about voting for someone who actually went ahead did it. Iraq itself would probably get worse if we pulled out, at least in the short term, and there's an outside chance that it would get way worse. Dems would get all the blame, of course. And finally, Democrats would no longer have the war as an issue to run on in 2008.

But there's more. Not only are there fewer upsides than downsides, but the upsides are vague and fuzzy while the downsides are sharp and terrifying and potentially career-ending. This is the underlying dynamic that will probably keep us in Iraq essentially forever, no matter who we elect president. It's all very discouraging.

Kevin Drum 11:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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AQI AGAIN?....U.S. military officials say they've captured the man who murdered sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha last Thursday:

During a raid of three buildings west of Balad on Saturday, U.S. soldiers captured Fallah Khalifa Hiyas Fayyas al-Jumayli, also known as Abu Khamis, a man described in a military statement as "closely allied with senior al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders in the region."

Look, I wouldn't be at all surprised if AQI was responsible for Risha's murder. But am I the only one who finds this statement to be disturbingly weasel-worded? "Closely allied" with AQI "leaders in the region"? I imagine that's something you could say about most of the Sunni extremists in Anbar province.

Was AQI really involved with the murder, or is this just another strained attempt to somehow mention "al-Qaeda" in a high-profile case? Straight answers, please.

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PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....A note from the book pile: I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lincoln book, Team of Rivals, and so far I've failed to see any parallels between Abe and the current occupant of the White House. Just sayin'. But I've still got a few pages to go, so who knows? I'll keep my eyes peeled.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BASE....Andrew Sullivan sez:

The discomfort level of the leading GOP candidates with anyone but straight white males is palpable.

Now see? That's just the kind of hyperbole Andrew is infamous for. And it's really unfair. The leading GOP candidates are perfectly comfortable with straight white females too.

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By: Kevin Drum

STATE SECRETS....As we all know (or should know by now), the "state secrets privilege" in U.S. courts is basically absolute. If the government tells a judge that divulging a certain piece of evidence might endanger national security, then the evidence is excluded. If that means the case itself can't go forward, tough. According to Barry Siegel in the LA Times today, the Bush administration has invoked the state secrets privilege 39 times, nearly triple the rate of the four previous administrations. It's the neutron bomb of wartime executive power.

But if it's being abused, why doesn't Congress get a spine and modify it? Funny you should ask. You see, the state secrets privilege wasn't created by Congress. It was created by the Supreme Court half a century ago when the government tried to get a suit over a B-29 accident thrown out on the grounds that it would endanger national security to let it go forward:

[District Judge William] Kirkpatrick found the government in default and awarded the widows damages. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed his decision.

But when the matter came before the U.S. Supreme Court, it reversed the lower courts, for the first time formally recognizing a state secrets privilege in the landmark ruling U.S. vs. Reynolds. The government shouldn't have absolute autonomy, wrote Chief Justice Fred Vinson in his 1953 opinion, but if the government can satisfy the court that a "reasonable danger" to national security exists, judges should defer and not force the government to produce documents — not even for private examination in the judge's chambers.

Ironically, we now know that there were no national security implications at all in the original Reynolds case. Turns out it was garden variety negligence and incompetence that caused the plane to crash — something the lower court judges would have known if they had been allowed to review the accident report privately. But not only did the Supreme Court decline to allow an in camera review, it set a precedent specifically instructing trial courts that if there's a "reasonable danger" that national security is at stake, "the court should not jeopardize the security which the privilege is meant to protect by insisting upon an examination of the evidence, even by the judge alone, in chambers."

In other words, if the government says so, then the case gets thrown out. To this day, courts are extremely reluctant to demand even a private review of executive branch secrecy claims, let alone issue an affirmative ruling against the government:

Yet the Bush administration may finally have escalated the dubious use of the state secrets privilege to a point of resistance. In the summer of 2006, U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker...ventured to deny government state secrets claims in the domestic surveillance and eavesdropping cases.

....[Walker's opinion] came on appeal before the three-judge U.S. 9th Circuit panel last month....But judicial deference, for once, did not seem to be in the air. According to news reports, Pregerson (a President Carter appointee) sounded downright irritated; judges McKeown and Michael Daly Hawkins (President Clinton appointees) at the least were doubtful.

....Hearing the deputy solicitor general talk of "ultimate deference" due the executive branch, Pregerson asked: "What does 'ultimate deference' mean? Bow to it?"

Question: if the 9th Circuit rules against the government and the Supreme Court takes up the case, where will conservatives side? Against the 1953 decision in which the Supreme Court invented an expansive new claim of privilege where none had existed before, surely a clear-cut case of the judicial activism they so often condemn? Or with the government because....because....they really like expansive executive branch powers? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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September 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS?....Mark Thoma points today to an interesting new paper about Iraq from Michael Greenstone of MIT. (NBER download here.) Quick summary: Greenstone takes a look at all the usual metrics for measuring the success of the surge (civilian casualties, oil production, etc.) and reports that they're inconclusive. No surprise there. So, being a public finance geek, he takes a look at a different metric: bond prices.

Iraq issued about $2.7 billion in debt settlement bonds (technically Eurobonds) in January 2006, and it turns out that ever since then there's been a liquid and competitive market for these bonds, which are traded in substantial quantities on world financial markets. The yield of these bonds over time can be converted into a measure of investor belief that the Iraqi government will default on its coupon payments, which in turn is a referendum on the stability of the government itself.

So Greenstone took a look at Iraqi bond prices before and after the surge, and compared them to a set of other bond prices in an effort to control for a variety of non-surge-related factors that might affect the value of Iraqi bonds. In all, he attempted to control for the effect of (a) oil revenues, (b) global subprime woes and their effect on emerging market debt in general [see update below for more], (c) global changes in the yield curve, and (d) domestic U.S. issues. However, even after controlling for all those things, it was clear that investor confidence in the Iraqi government has plummeted since the surge began:

The results are striking. The annual probability of a default...is 5.75% at t = 0 [i.e., on February 14, 2007]. After the Surge begins, it is never this low again implying that even in the early days of the Surge the market didn't believed that it would improve Iraq's future prospects. Perhaps even more notable, the expected annual default probability rises to 8.14% by the end of the period. This is an approximately 40% increase in the expected default rate. The clear conclusion is that the world financial markets believe that the probability that Iraq will default on its bond increased after the Surge's initiation.

Greenstone's result is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it shows that investor confidence in Iraq's government has dropped steadily ever since the beginning of the surge. Second, it shows that investor confidence plummeted dramatically beginning in the first week of July.

Why? At this point it's guesswork. My guess is that despite the happy talk, investors viewed the surge from the start as a last gasp effort that had little chance of success and couldn't be kept up for long in any case. Then, in July, when the various Sunni blocs left the government and the Iraqi National Assembly went on vacation without having reached agreement on even a single one of its most important measures, investors realized the jig was up. Modest security gains are nice, but they knew all along that political progress was what really mattered. So now they're voting with their pocketbooks: despite the pictures from the Dora Market and the optimistic reports from the likes of Michael O'Hanlon, they simply don't believe that the surge is providing the "breathing space" it was designed for. There's no political reconciliation in sight.

Take this for what it's worth. Obviously investors don't have any secret sources of information, and they can be every bit as susceptible to panics and bubbles as the rest of us. Still, since they have large sums of money at stake, they have every incentive in this case to view Iraq dispassionately and analytically, and they obviously don't like what they see. If markets really are good aggregators of information, the surge isn't looking good.

UPDATE: Several commenters seem to think that Greenstone is an idiot who doesn't realize that the price of risky bonds dropped globally when the subprime credit debacle unfolded earlier this summer. Needless to say, that's not the case.

There are two things to be aware of. First, the price of Iraqi bonds began to plunge before the subprime meltdown. Second, Greenstone compares Iraqi bonds to bonds from other emerging countries, which also suffered from the global flight to quality after the credit markets collapsed. The Iraqi bonds suffered even compared to other risky government bonds. Bottom line: the decline in Iraqi bond prices appears to be genuinely related to events in Iraq, not just events in the global credit markets.

Now, Greenstone might still have missed something. His controls aren't perfect. But he didn't just ignore this summer's problems in the credit markets. Read the full paper for more.

Kevin Drum 7:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALL LARGELY ABOUT OIL....Bob Woodward plucks a sentence from Alan Greenspan's forthcoming memoir:

Without elaborating, he writes, "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

Now that's a statement that could use some elaboration, isn't it? I guess Greenspan hasn't quite given up his Sphinx-like pose entirely.

(So what's Greenspan's point? I don't think he's suggesting that we invaded Iraq because we wanted to seize control of their oil fields and hand them over to ExxonMobil. More likely, he's making the unexceptional argument that we wouldn't care much about the Middle East in the first place if it didn't have all that oil. But it does, and our economy depends on it, and we long ago decided that protecting our access to that oil was an essential element of our national interest. The Iraq war, as Greenspan notes, is pretty obviously bound up in all of that.)

Kevin Drum 4:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Phillip Longman

ELECTRONIC RECORDS AT THE VA....What's the big deal about the VA's electronic medical record system? Almost uniquely, its original code was written by doctors for doctors, as part of an ad hoc, collaborative process. The story, which I chronicle in my book, Best Care Anywhere, is wonderful. It's one of an underground subculture of geeky doctors and other health care professionals, known as the Hard Hats, that emerged within the VA beginning the late 1970s. Hacking clandestinely on Tandy PCs and DEC mini-computers, they wrote some 18,000 different programs that eventually were integrated to become the VA's world class VistA system.

Because of this history, VA doctors have long had "buy in" to digitalized medicine that is still largely lacking in the rest of the health care system. And while there is no one definition of "open source," the VA's VistA system is essentially that. From this comes all sorts of advantages over proprietary software programs, including free distribution with no licensing fees, rapid detection and elimination of bugs, and the ability of end users to improve the code and adapt it to their own medical practices.

Finally, there's the huge networking effects that are unique to VistA. So your doctor carries a laptop around? Big deal. Electronic medical records have some value over paper files, but not much, if they cannot be widely shared among the many different specialists, labs, pharmacies and other players typically involved in a patient's care, either at one time or over an extended period. Also, the data contained in electronic medical records about which treatments work best is of little use to researchers if they can't aggregate that data across large populations. The potential for electronic medical records to drive the development of safer, more effective "evidence based" medicine is huge, but only if those records are part of a very large, integrated system like the VA's. It took me a long time to get my head around these realities, but once I did it was easy to see what a big deal the VistA system is.

Phillip Longman 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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September 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GREENSPAN SPEAKS!....INTELLIGIBLY, THAT IS....Of the six presidents Alan Greenspan has served under, which one was the most economically illiterate? Bloomberg offers the answer from Greenspan's forthcoming book:

Greenspan saved his harshest analysis for the current president. Soon after Bush took office in 2001, the president set about implementing a campaign promise to cut taxes, a policy Greenspan said he believed at the time wasn't well conceived.

"Little value was placed on rigorous economic policy debate or the weighing of long-term consequences," he wrote.

In 2001 testimony before Congress, Greenspan was widely interpreted to have endorsed Bush's proposed tax cuts. In the book, he characterized his testimony as politically careless and said his words were misinterpreted.

Politically careless, eh? That's not really a trait I associate with Alan Greenspan, so color me skeptical. Still, at least he has the good sense to be embarrassed by his conduct at the time. I guess that's something.

And as long as we're on the subject, which president was the most economically literate? According to this self-described "lifelong libertarian Republican," it was Bill Clinton, who displayed "a consistent, disciplined focus on long-term economic growth." How 'bout them apples?

In other news, Greenspan says congressional Republicans "swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserved to lose." He blames the housing bubble on the fall of communism and says he has no regrets about doing nothing to stop it. Deflation was a bigger concern. Also: globalization is starting to wind down, and with it the downward pressure on inflation it's produced for the past couple of decades. Keeping inflation low is going to be a lot harder in the future than it has been until now.

Thus sayeth Greenspan.

Kevin Drum 8:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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By: Phillip Longman

LONG-TERM CARE AND THE VA....Kevin wonders why, in "Best Care Everywhere," I say that the VA's near lifetime relationship with its patients, which it has always had, is a key to its current success.

In part the answer is that the VA was never as bad as portrayed in movies such as Born on the 4th of July. As detailed in my book, Best Care Anywhere: Why VA Health Care is Better Than Yours (Polipoint 2007), activists long ago admitted to stage setting at least some of the outrageous conditions chronicled in the media during the post-Vietnam era. It's also true that as a very large, public institution the VA is routinely subject to high levels of scrutiny. Failings that go unreported elsewhere in the health system become instant headlines and the subject of congressional hearings when they occur at the VA. Opponents of "socialized medicine" also long have had a high stake in pointing to any shortcomings in its only actual example in the U.S. The VA thus has a built in PR problem, as do all government run health care systems around the world. Yet even when the VA's reputation was very low compared to today, veterans groups strongly resisted proposals to replace VA health care with vouchers. Most vets who use VA health care prefer it to private sector health care, and always have.

So the VA never was that bad. Still, why did it get so much better during the 90s, both compared to its past performance and to other providers? Partly it's a matter of inspired leadership. In larger measure, it's a matter of the changing nature of illness. The improvements the experts are talking about are largely in the realm of preventing and managing long-term chronic disease, which have become the leading causes of death in modern populations. This change is key to understanding the VA's superior performance. In the treatment of acute care injuries and infections like pneumonia, it doesn't matter much if there's a long-term relationship between patient and provider. You either get the right short-term treatment or you don't, then recover or die. But now that more and more of us are living long enough to die of heart disease, cancer, and especially diabetes, which by their nature require long-term, highly coordinated care to prevent and manage, it has come to matter a lot if we are treated by an institution that has a stake in our health five or twenty years down the road.

Phillip Longman 5:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....No more playing favorites this week. Both cats get the spotlight once again, though as you can see, one of them gets the red carpet treatment. Is it any surprise which one it is?

UPDATE: More crude Photoshopping! But this picture is totally legit. Honest. Both cats were sleeping within inches of each other. However, I did use Photoshop to lighten up Domino a bit, since in the original she was basically just an inky black blob. This is a frequent problem with catblogging these days.

Kevin Drum 3:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WIND-UP CANDIDATE....More before-and-after comparisons. Here is James Fallows last night on Rudy Giuliani's performance after Bush's speech:

He looks like a man who is crazy. Making no clinical diagnosis here, just talking about his affect as it comes across on TV. I am sure this is partly just my unfamiliarity with his tic of stressing a point by opening his eyes so wide you can see the whites all the way around. He does that a lot, and at first glance it's odd. But beyond that is the eerie sense of how strongly he resembles the earlier, cockier G.W. Bush of two or three years ago.

OK, but in the fresh light of the morning we'll get a more nuanced take, right? Let's check in:

Impression the second time around....Mayor Giuliani, outrageously worse. Is this how he's been all along? To start with, he doesn't know anything. To be more precise: not a single sentence that he utters suggests any familiarity with what people have been saying and arguing — about terrorism, Iraq, the situation of the military, security trade-offs, etc — for the last few years. He's out of date in two ways: He displays the "fashionable in 2003 and 2004" assumption that if you say "nine-eleven, nine-eleven, nine-eleven!!" enough times, you end all debate about military policy. He displays the "fashionable about three weeks ago" assumption that if you say "General Petraeus, General Petraeus, General Petraeus" enough times, you've offered an Iraq policy. And through it all he seems totally self-confident. Hmm, have we seen anything like this combo before?

That's more like it. Aside from the bugeye thing, which makes Giuliani look just plain weird, I was struck, as I usually am, by how completely lacking in substance Giuliani is. He's literally a candidate built purely on attitude, like some hastily sketched-in part in a B movie. I'm surprised he's done even as well as he has so far, but there's no way the press is going to give him a pass on his pull-the-string-and-hear-a-buzzword candidacy for much longer. He's doomed.

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLUE BURBS....E.J. Dionne writes about electoral demographics:

Outside the Deep South, Democrats are on the verge of becoming the dominant party in the suburbs and are pushing into the exurbs....Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who headed the Democrats' 2006 effort in the House elections, regularly reminds his colleagues that 16 of the 31 Democratic pickups were in suburban or exurban areas. He has been talking about a new "suburban populism" or "metropolitan populism" that he characterizes as "a revolt of the center." The suburbs are changing demographically as more nonwhites move in, and many suburban voters are turned off by the ideological politics of the right, particularly the Christian right.

....Mark Warner, who combines popularity in the suburbs with strength in rural areas that's unusual for a Democrat, clearly had his own version of Emanuel's "revolt of the center" in mind when he announced his candidacy in a Web broadcast yesterday. He spoke of voters who were "sick to death of the bickering" in Washington and promised a "practical problem-solving approach" and "a bipartisan approach of change."

Safe, soothing and very suburban: These could be the characteristics of the new American majority. For now, Democrats have the better understanding of its rhythms.

Cities are liberal, rural areas are conservative, and suburbs are the battleground. That's been true for a long time, and John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted a Democratic resurgence in the burbs back in 2002. Terrorism and 9/11 intervened temporarily to turn back the tide, but demographics can't be put on hold forever. The suburbs are turning blue. More here.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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By: Kevin Drum

HI-DEF BUSH....Last night Andrew Sullivan wrote that George Bush seemed "almost broken to me...his affect exhausted, his facial expression almost bewildered." Today he offers a second opinion:

I should say that I watched Bush in high-definition, and on regular TV, he didn't look so exhausted.

Clearly we're seeing a technology paradigm shift at work. Just as Richard Nixon "lost" the 1960 debate because, although he sounded fine on radio, he looked bad on TV, so modern politicians are going to have to learn to look good even when they're looming over their audience on 80-inch HD plasma screens. Looking good on a scratchy 32-inch tube doesn't cut it anymore. I predict booming business for a whole new generation of media advisors and skin care consultants.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

VIOLENT DEATHS IN IRAQ....A British polling company recently surveyed 1,461 adults in Iraq and asked each one, "How many members of your household, if any, have died as a result of the conflict in Iraq since 2003?" Based on the results, they say that 1.2 million Iraqis have died violent deaths in the past four years.

The methodology here is nowhere near as detailed as that of last year's Lancet study, which produced a figure of about 650,000 war-related deaths in three years (and probably would have produced a number of about 1 million if it had been extended into 2007), but at first glance it certainly seems to support the notion that the violence rate has been far higher than usually reported. However, here's a second glance:

According to its findings, nearly one in two households in Baghdad had lost at least one member to war- related violence, and 22% of households nationwide had suffered at least one death. It said 48% of the victims were shot to death and 20% died as a result of car bombs, with other explosions and military bombardments blamed for most of the other fatalities.

Hold on. 20% of the deaths were from car bombs? That's 240,000 deaths. Since the average car bomb kills about 7-8 people, this poll is suggesting there have been nearly 32,000 car bomb attacks in Iraq since 2003.

Roughly speaking, that's 20 car bombs per day, compared to official estimates of 2-3 car bombs per day. And while overall death counts are necessarily fuzzy, car bombs are big public events that usually get reported fairly reliably in the media.

So....I dunno. As I recall, there was a similar criticism of the Lancet study on this particular point, and I'm not sure how it got resolved. I know some of my readers have delved pretty deeply into the Lancet controversy, so maybe they can help out in comments. Overall, though, unless you think that car bombs have been massively underreported, which is harder to believe than it is for death counts in general, this result suggests that household self-reporting of violent deaths in Iraq may be prone to exaggeration.

Alternatively, there are way more car bombs in Iraq than we think. Brrr.

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

BEST CARE EVERYWHERE....As regular readers may know, Phil Longman thinks the VA model of healthcare is the best around. In the October issue of the Monthly, he takes his admiration to another level, suggesting that the best way to provide healthcare to the 45 million uninsured in America is via — what? I guess you'd call it a franchised version of the VA. Basically, the federal government would offer struggling municipal hospitals a trade: if you adopt the VA's management guidelines, the government will pay you to care for all those uninsured folks currently jamming up your emergency rooms and driving you bankrupt. Deal?

It's an interesting idea, but I have some questions. Let's take this passage first:

How is a supposedly sclerotic government agency with 198,000 employees from five separate unions outperforming the best the private market has to offer? In a word: incentives. Uniquely among U.S. health care providers, the VA has a near-lifetime relationship with its patients. This, in turn, gives it an institutional interest in preventing its patients from getting sick and in managing their long-term chronic illnesses effectively. If the VA doesn't get its pre-diabetic patients to eat right, exercise, and control their blood sugar, for example, it's on the hook down the road for the cost of their dialysis, amputations, blindness, and even possible long-term nursing home costs....The VA model is that rarest of health care beasts: one with a perfect alignment of interest between patients and providers.

OK, but the VA has always had these incentives, and until a few years ago the VA sucked. So why didn't those incentives work in 70s and 80s? International comparisons also call these incentives into question. Britain has a VA-like system, for example, while France and Sweden (and most other countries) have more traditional models like Medicare, in which the state funds healthcare but doesn't employ everyone directly. But Britain, with the same incentives as the VA, doesn't do any better than France and Sweden, and in some areas does worse.

So if it's not the VA's incentives that really make it tick, what does? Answer: "Since its technology-driven transformation in the 1990s...the VA has emerged as the world leader in electronic medical records — and thus in the development of the evidence-based medicine these records make possible." Hospitals that joined Longman's "Vista network" (his name for the VA-like franchise he proposes) would have to install the VA's electronic medical record software and would "also have to shed acute care beds and specialists and invest in more outpatient clinics." By doing this they'd provide better care than any current private network and do it at a lower cost.

Wow! But I think I'd want to see some more evidence for this. Everyone from Newt Gingrich to Hillary Clinton sings the praises of electronic medical records, but is their payoff really that big?

In any case, you may be wondering what the point of all this is. Basically it's the camel's nose. Longman believes that setting up his Vista network would be relative cheap and relatively nonthreatening (it doesn't take business away from current insurers since it only covers the currently uninsured), which makes it politically doable. It would be partially funded by the money we currently spend on the poor, and partly by a mandate that everyone be insured. That means lots of young, healthy people without insurance would have to buy into the system. They'd be pissed, Longman acknowledges, but that's tough. They'd come to like it before long.

In fact, that's the whole plan: over time, the Vista network would prove itself to be so great that everyone would want in. Employers would clamor to be allowed to join. Private insurers would either shape up or go out of business. Healthcare in America would get both better and cheaper for everyone. And all because the federal government imposed a specific set of regulations on hospitals that serve the poor.

I have to admit that it sounds too good to be true. Would a federal program for the poor ever get funded well enough to become a model for the rest of the industry? Are electronic medical records really that great? Can we ever save serious money as long as the private health insurance industry has us all in its grip?

I don't know. What I can say is that I've been skeptical about some of Longman's ideas in the past and eventually come around. Maybe I will this time too. Read the whole piece and decide for yourself.

Kevin Drum 1:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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September 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE SPEECH....I actually fell asleep during Bush's speech. Seriously. When I woke up Jack Reed was talking to me. Very unprofessional blogging behavior.

So, no comments on the speech. Instead, here are quickie takes on the four presidential candidates that Larry King interviewed afterward. Barack Obama: seemed halting and unsure of himself. Too scripted. Not his best performance. Rudy Giuliani: made Obama look fluent and brilliant. He was all over the map, and had the highest buzzword-to-content quotient I've seen in a long while. John Edwards: pretty good! Made decent points about the lack of political progress and how we could use withdrawal to put pressure on the warring factions in Iraq. His points were mostly sharp and easy to follow. John McCain: pale face, pale hair, pale shirt, soft voice. He just sort of melted away. And what's with this "Rumsfeld's war" stuff? Isn't it "Bush's war"?

OK, that's it. I have to go pick up a pizza. Talk amongst yourselves.

Kevin Drum 10:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

ENDING THE WAR....Can Democrats force President Bush to begin a withdrawal of troops from Iraq? The short answer is that — constitutional questions aside — any resolution mandating specific troop deployments out of Iraq would require 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster and 67 votes to overcome a veto. That's obviously not going to happen. So Markos Moulitsas, echoing others, endorses Chris Dodd's approach:

What was clear to me before, and what should be abundantly clear to my colleagues after today, is that this President is not going to change course unless we force him to. There is only one way to do that — we must set a clear, hard and fast deadline for redeployment and, in order to enforce it, that deadline must be tied to funding.

This sounds more plausible since budget reconciliations can pass with a simple majority and Bush can't veto Pentagon funding forever. Unfortunately, there's a problem: Democrats don't have a simple majority. There are 49 Democrats in the Senate, and if you assume Bernie Sanders would join in, you're up to 50.

That's not enough. The only way to defund the war is for the Democratic leadership in the Senate to maintain absolute, 100% iron control over its own caucus and get at least one Republican to join them. But while there are a handful of Republicans who have been critical of the war, I can't think of even a single one who'd come within a country mile of voting to defund it. Can you?

So what's Plan B?

UPDATE: In comments, there seems to be some widespread misunderstanding about how budget bills work. Long story short, you can't filibuster them, so 40 votes won't stop anything.

And remember, we're not talking about an emergency supplemental here. We're talking about the FY 2008 budget for the entire Pentagon. Basically, Democrats have two choices: (a) muster the votes for a bill that funds the Pentagon but defunds the war and then dare Bush to veto it, or (b) refuse to pass anything, which effectively defunds the Pentagon completely without even forcing Bush to risk a veto. Option A is what we did earlier this year, and its success depends on whether we can keep our own caucus together and find a Republican senator or two to side with us for several votes in a row. Pretty unlikely. Option B is electoral suicide.

I'm all for trying Option A, but it makes Dems look weak and whiny to introduce bills and then have them fail, which is almost certainly what would happen. Is that what we want? And what comes next after that?

Kevin Drum 4:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (147)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SYMPATHIZERS....Timothy Garton Ash on jihadist terrorism in Europe:

The larger part of this struggle, and the more important in the longer term, is the battle for the hearts and minds of young European Muslims — usually men — who are not yet violent jihadists but could become so. All over the Continent, and around its edges, there are hundreds of thousands of young Muslim men who could be tomorrow's bombers — or tomorrow's good citizens.

The chemistry in Europe can be understood a little better by thinking back to the last wave of youth terrorism, in the "German autumn" of 30 years ago and Italy's Red Brigades. When I lived in Berlin in the late 1970s, I met quite a few people who told me, "You know, there was a moment when I could have gone either way." They could have slunk away to join the Red Army Faction, like those acquaintances of their acquaintances. Instead, they became journalists, academics or lawyers and are now pillars of a society under attack from a potentially more destructive wave of terrorism.

Of course, we cannot take the comparison too far, but one basic feature is the same: Beside the hard core of fanatics is a penumbra of people who could choose the wrong path. In Germany, they are called the sympathisanten — the sympathizers. Among European Muslims, they might very roughly be correlated with those who, in surveys, refuse to condemn suicide bombings. One analyst estimates that while the hard core may make up 1% of British Muslims, the sympathisanten make up perhaps 10% of German Muslims.

....Fortunately, there are also people who travel the other way. So much now depends on whether the 10% veer toward the barbaric 1% or rejoin the civilized majority.

The barbaric 1% are the targets of police, intelligence, and military operations. But all over the world, not just in Europe, it's the sympathetic 10% the rest of us should be paying attention to. They are Mao's sea in which the jihadists swim.

Getting out of Iraq won't automatically convert the 10%, but it's a good first step. The alternative is that we stay and the 10% turns into 30%. Or 50%. Then kaboom.

Like the old saw about planting trees, the best time to stop digging ourselves into a deeper hole in Iraq was four years ago. The second best time is right now. Then maybe we can start paying attention to what matters.

Kevin Drum 2:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

JOE LIEBERMAN WATCH....Ezra Klein comments on Joe Lieberman's almost palpable eagerness these days for a U.S. attack on Iran:

There was a period when the anger between Lieberman and the Democratic Party really did seem to center around a limited disagreement on the path forward in Iraq. At this point, though, Lieberman's hawkishness seems more of an unthinking positioning device. But it's very serious, and will undoubtedly receive a warm reception on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The WSJ and the Weekly Standard, along with the rest of the mouth breathers, will undoubtedly continue their love affair with Joe. But am I the only one who thinks that the mainstream media is mostly treating Lieberman with only barely concealed ridicule these days? His more-hawkish-than-thou schtick has gotten so over the top in the past few months that he seems almost a figure of pity more than anything else.

If I were less lazy I'd troll around in Google for some supporting evidence on this, but I don't really feel like spending my morning on Joe Lieberman research. And it's a pretty subtle thing anyway. So I'll just throw it out: Does anyone else get the sense that the press is treating Lieberman with a notch less respect than it used to? Or is this just wishful thinking on my part?

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

SUNSET IN ANBAR?....Sattar Abu Risha, the Sunni sheikh most closely associated with the Anbar Awakening, was murdered today by a bomb planted near his home. AP says, naturally enough, that "suspicion fell on al-Qaida in Iraq." Maybe so. But even within the Sunni tribal community itself Risha was a polarizing, overbearing figure who often claimed to speak for all Sunnis everywhere — an attitude that made him plenty of enemies among other Sunni leaders. Marc Lynch explains:

There's no reason to assume that al-Qaeda killed him — I'd guess that one of the nationalist insurgency groups, the ones which current American rhetoric pretends don't exist — is a more likely suspect. Other tribes deeply resented him. The major nationalist insurgency groups had recently issued a series of statements denouncing people who would illegitimately seize the fruits of their victorious jihad — of whom he was the prime example. All those photographs which swamped the Arab media showing him shaking hands with President Bush made him even more a marked man than before.

His murder graphically demonstrates that the other groups threatened by the American Anbar strategy were never going to just sit back passively and allow it to succeed — an obvious strategic point which has always seemed to elude surge advocates.

Marc's epitaph for this grisly murder could apply equally to the entire American effort in Iraq. The Anbar strategy, he says, relied "on a whole series of best-case scenarios in which nothing could go wrong." Unfortunately, "In Iraq, something always goes wrong."

Kevin Drum 11:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICAL PROGRESS WATCH....Noted without comment:

A carefully constructed compromise on a draft law governing Iraq's rich oil fields, agreed to in February after months of arduous talks among Iraqi political groups, appears to have collapsed. The apparent breakdown comes just as Congress and the White House are struggling to find evidence that there is progress toward reconciliation and a functioning government here.

Who could have predicted such a thing?

Kevin Drum 1:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

IED ATTACKS....A couple of days ago I mentioned that Gen. Petraeus's PowerPoint chart showing IED attacks in Iraq included "hoaxes" in its count. That seemed odd, and I wondered what the chart would look like if it showed only actual IED attacks.

Over at Newshoggers, Cernig delivers. By abstracting data from another one of Petraeus's charts, he replots the graph without the hoaxes. Result: there's still a dropoff in attacks over the past eight weeks (Cernig's weekly count provides the best view), but it looks rather more modest than it does in Petraeus's chart. Funny how that works.

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By: Kevin Drum

DRAINING THE SWAMP....Last week John Edwards proposed the creation of an international Counterterrorism and Intelligence Treaty Organization (CITO). Henry Farrell has some minor objections, but nonetheless likes the idea because:

it clearly puts the emphasis of combatting international terrorism where it should be — on policing and domestic intelligence. Metaphorically and intellectually muddled plans to drain the fever swamp of the Arab Street etc have not only proved wrong-headed, but catastrophic.

In comments, James Wimberly doesn't disagree, but adds:

And we must not cede the wingnuts the monopoly of the "draining the swamp" idea. Tackling the root causes or predisposing factors of terrorism — political grievances, wacko readings of religious traditions, culture shock, unemployment and underdevelopment — is commonsense and essential. It should not be discarded just because the neocon idea of how to drain a swamp is to bomb it.

I don't have anything significant to add to this. But both comments seem worthwhile, so I thought I'd toss them out.

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September 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WINGERS, WINGERS, EVERYWHERE....So what's my take on the Media Matters report showing that conservative syndicated columnists outnumber liberal syndicated columnists on newspaper op-ed pages? I know you're wondering. First, I suspect it demonstrates that syndicated op-ed columns are mostly run in smallish newspapers, and smallish newspapers tend to serve conservative communities. Second, it demonstrates the astonishing hegemony of George Will over our op-ed pages. Who knew rural America was so in love with bow ties and faux intellectualism?

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By: Kevin Drum

ONE FRIEDMAN FROM NOW....Gen. David Petraeus's gaffe (later retracted) that he didn't know if the Iraq war is making us safer got a lot of press yesterday, but I think Fred Kaplan nails a couple of exchanges that might have been more important:

The Democratic chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden, asked Petraeus whether he would recommend a continuation of the strategy — with 130,000 to 160,000 U.S. troops shooting and dying in Iraq — if the situation next March were the same as it is now.

Petraeus replied, "That's a really big hypothetical." Biden said, "I don't think it's a hypothetical." So Petraeus stepped up and answered the question. He said, "I'd be very hard-pressed to recommend that, at that point."

....Sen. Barack Obama asked Crocker a related question: "At what point do we say, 'Enough'?"....The level of violence, he said, needs to go down and stay down. Iraqi insurgents need to display the same sort of political cooperation that Sunni tribes are now displaying in Anbar province. Linkage needs to be developed between the central government in Baghdad and provinces where this sort of progress is taking place. And the Baghdad government needs to combat Shiite, as well as Sunni, militias.

....When Petraeus and Crocker return to Congress in March 2008, these words will no doubt be read back to them.

No doubt. The question is, will it matter?

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By: Kevin Drum

TERROR FIGHTIN' HILLARY....I've been actively avoiding most poll blogging until now, but with the Iowa caucuses a mere four months away it's probably time to start paying attention. Today's LA Times poll confirmed a couple of obvious things (Hillary's ahead everywhere and Dodd, Gravel, Kucinich, and Biden need put their egos back into cold storage and stop wasting our time) but also a couple of nonobvious things. Nonobvious to me, anyway.

First, Hillary Clinton is not only ahead in all three of the early caucus/primary states, but her supporters are more firmly in her camp than Edwards' or Obama's. Interesting! I would have guessed that Obama had the bigger corps of highly dedicated supporters. Second, and more important, Hillary leads not just in the general category of "more experienced," but in the very specific categories of "best at fighting terrorism" and "best at ending the Iraq war." And she leads by enormous margins. That may be wildly unfair (especially the latter), but it's really, really important. The 2008 campaign is going to hinge on terrorism and the war, just like the 2004 campaign, and as long as Hillary has a massive lead on those two issues she's unstoppable. Obama and Edwards better find a way to change that perception or else they'll be roadkill come this time next February.

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By: Kevin Drum

A PROVOCATION....In my ongoing effort to embarrass myself in public, I'm going to revisit the subject of the feared Mideast meltdown that might follow in the wake of an American withdrawal from Iraq. First, though, to make my position absolutely clear: I do believe that the Iraq civil war itself would likely get worse if we leave, but I don't believe this would necessarily lead to a broadening of the war to the entire region (the "Middle East In Flames" theory).

My skepticism of the MEIF theory is mostly grounded in two things. First, it's a theory that gets an awful lot of uncritical acceptance without much in the way of actual detailed argument. That's always a bad sign. Second, worst case scenarios have a long history of being trotted out as a convenient way of forestalling unwanted action, and that's what seems to be happening in this case.

Beyond that, though, there are the specifics of the MEIF scenario itself — and this is the part where I go to work without a net. Here's the nickel version of why I suspect an Iraqi civil war won't spread.

The four neighbors that are most likely to get involved in a wider war are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, and Syria. Basically, I consider Saudi Arabia a paper tiger. They're militarily incompetent and will never get directly involved in Iraq, no matter how much the local Wahhabi imams rant about the persecution of Iraq's Sunni minority. Iran is more competent, but over the past 30 years they've never displayed any territorial ambitions. They prefer working through proxies. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran may provide some modest funding for their "side," but probably not much more.

Jordan has no desire to get involved in any kind of war, and in any case we have a moderate amount of influence with King Abdullah. We can almost certainly keep Jordan from taking precipitate action as long as they don't feel too threatened. Syria is harder to predict, but they've got plenty of problems on their plate already. Besides, they've been making fairly consistently conciliatory noises lately, and as Eric Umansky reminds us, they actively tried to cooperate with us in the early days of the Iraq war until Donald Rumsfeld put the kibosh on them.

Needless to say, no one can predict the future with any confidence, especially in a region as turbulent as the Middle East. And it's impossible to prove that a worst case scenario won't happen. Still, I think most of the regional players are more invested in stability than we give them credit for, especially if the United States takes a sane and energetic diplomatic approach to things. Saudi Arabia and Iran both want to keep their oil flowing, and both continue to keep bilateral talks plodding along. Syria will follow Iran's lead. Jordan will hunker down.

But having said all that, here's the thing: I'm talking through my hat. My instincts tell me that the MEIF theory is overblown, but I don't know the region well enough to say this with any confidence. So take this post as more of a provocation than anything else. What I'm hoping is that a few genuine regional experts will read it and chime in, telling me either that I'm full of shit or else that I'm onto something. Anything just to get the MEIF theory out in the open and the subject of genuine conversation. You may all fire when ready.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE END OF THE SURGE....According to the Washington Post, White House aides say that President Bush will announce on Thursday that he plans to withdraw 30,000 troops from Iraq by the middle of next year:

They said the president plans to emphasize that he is in a position to order troop cuts only because of the success achieved on the ground in Iraq, and that he is not being swayed by political opposition. Aides said that he plans to outline once again what he sees as the dire consequences of failure in Iraq and that he will make the troop cuts conditional on continued military gains.

Look, Bush is a politician and I don't blame him for putting the best face on his decisions. Still, this is pretty rich. Everyone on the planet knows perfectly well that we're not withdrawing these troops next year because we've achieved some grand success on the ground in Iraq. We haven't, and Bush knows it. We're withdrawing them because the Army has no operational choice.

However, while I don't really blame Bush for trying this ploy, I do blame Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman for letting it stand without bothering to tell their readers the truth. It's not that hard, guys.

Kevin Drum 12:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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September 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WHOSE WAR?....On the off chance that you were feeling cheerful today, Juan Cole has a great big bucket of ice to dump on you:

If the Democrats cannot prevail in withdrawing before Bush goes out of office (and they cannot), and if they then rapidly draw down the troops on taking office in 2009, they face the real prospect of a "Gerald Ford meltdown" of the sort that occurred in 1975 when the North Vietnamese and their VC allies took over South Vietnam....The consequences may include even higher petroleum prices than we have seen recently, which at some point could bring back stagflation or very high rates of inflation.

In other words, the Democratic president risks being Fordized when s/he withdraws from Iraq, by the aftermath. A one-term president associated with humiliation abroad and high inflation at home? Maybe I should say, Carterized. The Republican Party could come back strong in 2012 and then dominate politics for decades, if that happened.

It is all so unfair, of course, since Bush started and prosecuted this disaster in Iraq, and Bush is refusing to accept responsibility for the failure, pushing it off onto his successor.

But life is unfair.

Now, I'm going to disagree with Juan on two grounds. First, I'm not convinced Vietnam really hurt Ford much. What with Watergate, an oil shock, stagflation, telling New York City to drop dead, and so forth, I always figured any Democratic opponent should have won about 500 electoral votes in 1976. The fact that Ford did as well as he did is strong evidence that the public understood perfectly well he wasn't responsible for Vietnam. Second, the Iraq war is even more clear cut. It's so plainly George Bush's debacle that I'm not sure the public is going to blame a Democratic president who earnestly tries to withdraw in a reasonable way from Iraq, even if it does blow up afterwards.

That said, though, Juan's scenario is utterly plausible. Things very well could go that way. Dems may not have the votes to defund the war, but I sure hope they're at least thinking hard about how to keep Republicans from pinning the blame on them for its inevitable ghastly conclusion.

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By: Kevin Drum

FUNNY BLOGS....What are the funniest blogs you read? I'll nominate Alicublog (Roy Edroso), Kung Fu Monkey (John Rogers), and Unfogged. What are your top three?

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By: Kevin Drum

AL-QAEDA 24/7....James Fallows, just now catching up on TV coverage of the Petraeus-Crocker testimony after a few days in deepest China, notes that on CNN "every reference to the adversary in Iraq is to 'al Qaeda.'" Michael Gordon talks about al-Qaeda, Michael Ware talks about al-Qaeda, and Anderson Cooper is a one-man al-Qaeda PR machine. Fallows wonders what's going on:

Jeez louise! Even Petraeus's own briefing slides, which I have just seen, refer to "AQI" — al Qaeda/Iraq, as distinguished from the actual al Qaeda that attacked the American mainland six years ago. Wasn't there a fair amount of fuss a few months ago about the Bush Administration's bait-and-switch trick in pushing the term "al Qaeda in Iraq" as a (bogus) way of stressing a link between Osama bin Laden and whoever is the enemy in Iraq? Why should CNN go along with this — and improve on it, by dropping the "in Iraq" part? Is it that anxious about shaking its "liberal" image? Just curious.

I'm curious too. Maybe none of these guys has read our October cover story.

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By: Kevin Drum

BHO vs. HRC....Barack Obama will be in Clinton, Iowa, tomorrow to do some Hillary Clinton bashing. Michael Crowley suggests that the public is tired of battles over HRC's vote in favor of the Senate Iraq resolution, which would make this a tired line of attack for Obama. However:

It's possible that Obama will spin the Iraq question into a broader proxy for about Hillary's policy judgment and her vaunted "experience." He's done some of that already. The...question then is whether he can make that point more forcefully — more negatively, I suppose — without seeming to violate his talk of a "politics of hope." Clinton advisors believe Obama's rhetoric has boxed him in and limited his ability to go on the offensive. But maybe it's still possible to thread the needle, to twist the knife with a measure of intellectual honesty, and basic class, that doesn't backfire on him.

This strikes me as, by far, the most important issue for Obama. In the particular area of foreign policy, he needs to persuade people that despite her eight years in the White House and six years in the Senate, Hillary's foreign policy judgment just isn't that good. Exhibit A would be the Iraq vote. Judgment and temperament are the most important attributes in foreign affairs, not experience, and that has to be where he aims his attack.

More generally, though, I think he has to convince people like me that he's actually serious about taking a new approach to foreign affairs. My single biggest problem with Obama is that behind all the Kumbaya talk about coming together and erasing red and blue, he has yet to convince me that his actual governing style would be much different from anyone else's. As far as I can tell, for example, he has yet to give a speech that either of the other two major candidates couldn't have delivered without changing a word. Hillary can get away with that for now, but Obama can't. He needs to shake things up.

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By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL WATCH....OPEC agreed today to increase oil production by 500,000 barrels per day. But check out this sentence in the New York Times coverage:

Consuming nations, including the United States, have been urging OPEC producers to put more oil on the market, warning that the winter months would see a big jump in consumption that non-OPEC producers would not be able to meet.

Note that this is now apparently conventional wisdom: the only spare oil production capacity left in the world is in OPEC. The non-OPEC peak isn't five years off, or ten years off. It's now.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....James Inhofe on how the war is going:

"It's a huge success story."

Inhofe is usually my default pick for worst member of the Senate. This seems right up his alley.

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By: Kevin Drum

REVOLT AT THE PENTAGON?....OK, that's enough non-Iraq posting for the day. Back to business. Michael Hirsh tells us that a significant faction within the Pentagon wants to withdraw from Iraq considerably more quickly than Gen. Petraeus:

Newsweek has learned that a separate internal report being prepared by a Pentagon working group will "differ substantially" from Petraeus's recommendations, according to an official who is privy to the ongoing discussions but would speak about them only on condition of anonymity. An early version of the report, which is currently being drafted and is expected to be completed by the beginning of next year, will "recommend a very rapid reduction in American forces: as much as two-thirds of the existing force very quickly, while keeping the remainder there." The strategy will involve unwinding the still large U.S. presence in big forward operation bases and putting smaller teams in outposts. "

Two things. First, this report isn't due until "the beginning of next year." That's plenty of time for it to get planed down until it essentially says whatever Bush and Cheney want it to say. I wouldn't get too excited about this.

Second, even if the generals do stand their ground, can someone explain how this makes sense? We're not fixing things now even with 168,000 troops, and if we draw down we're supposedly going to unleash a massive civil war. So what are 50,000 troops in scattered outposts going to do while that's going on? Hunker down? Head out and get slaughtered? Evacuate? I just don't see how this makes any sense at all.

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By: Kevin Drum

OVERSOLD....A reader writes to tell me I've become obsessed with Iraq. And he's right. It seems appropriate this week, but he's still right. So here's Paul Campos on whether or not it's OK to be overweight:

The story is simple: That it's well-established scientific fact that being "overweight" — that is, having a body mass index figure of between 25 and 30 — is, in the words of Harvard professors Walter Willett and Meir Stampfer, "a major contributor to morbidity and mortality."

....It's difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the actual scientific evidence fails to support any of this. In fact, the current evidence suggests that what the Harvard crew is saying is not merely false, but closer to the precise opposite of the truth. For the most part, the so-called "overweight" BMI range doesn't even correlate with overall increased health risk.

Basically, I accept Campos's argument. Being moderately overweight, in and of itself, won't kill you. The evidence on that score seems pretty compelling.

But I still have some questions. First: being overweight is associated with developing diabetes, isn't it? And this is a very bad thing. Second: in 99% of the cases, being overweight is the result of eating too much fatty food. And fatty foods are bad for your serum cholesterol level and likely to increase the risk of a heart attack. It's possible to have a high BMI even though your diet is fine, but let's face it: that's not usually the case. And third: being overweight stresses your back and your knees and your other joints and makes you less likely to exercise. And lack of exercise really is damaging to your health.

Now, I'm no expert in this stuff, and I might be off base here. And none of it is an excuse for medical researchers to misstate the epidemiological research on weight. Still, saying there's no increased health risk at all to being overweight is a stretch, isn't it? Anybody want to weigh in on this?

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By: Kevin Drum

LEAVING IRAQ....I've gotten a few emails and blog responses to my Sunday post about Chaos Hawks that make me think I should have written a little more clearly. So let me do that today.

Basically, I'm getting smacked around on two counts. First, that I'm denying anything bad will happen if we leave Iraq. Second, that I'm a monster who obviously doesn't care if lots of Iraqis die because we leave.

So here's what I think, as plainly as I can put it. First: I agree that if we leave Iraq the result will be an intensified civil war. Second: I agree that the bloodshed will be horrific.

But here's what else I think: If we don't leave Iraq, the result will simply be a longer, slower civil war. I won't rehash all the ongoing arguments over the surge in this post, but I don't think it's working and I don't think it will work. The result of staying, in other words, will be the same horrific bloodshed spread over a longer period; a more protracted stretch of regional destabilization; a greater probability of violence spreading to other countries (any casus belli will do); more American deaths; and ever greater strain on the military. This is a deeply unsettling view to most American policymakers, who hate the idea that U.S. intervention is, in some cases, either impotent or actively harmful, but unsettling or not, the bulk of the evidence suggests that that's the case in Iraq.

But there's more. The Chaos Hawks don't merely argue that Iraq's civil war will continue if we leave. Instead, since they can't point to much affirmative evidence that our presence is actually improving the political situation inside Iraq, they're forced to take the far more extreme position (see Crocker, Ryan, congressional testimony of) that if we leave Iraq the entire Middle East will go up in flames. But despite the fact that the scenario they lay out is almost cartoonishly harrowing, they barely even bother making a case for it. They just treat it as some kind of holy writ. To my ears, though, this sounds not like a sober and even-handed professional assessment, but more like a furious last ditch effort to frighten the public into opposing withdrawal — one that an awful lot of people seem to have accepted pretty uncritically. At the very minimum, though, can we at least have a serious conversation about this instead of simply accepting the maximally hawkish view at face value yet again? In a dramatic era it may be undramatic to say so, but the evidence that an Iraqi civil war will inevitably broaden into a massive regional conflagration simply isn't very convincing.

Look: If I thought the surge could work, I'd support it no matter how much I hate the idea. It would be good for Iraq, good for the region, and good for America. And if only a cynical argument will persuade you, it would also be good for an incoming Democratic president, who wouldn't come to office with a hideous quagmire as his or her top foreign policy priority.

But I don't believe that. I think the surge is just desperation talking, and I sometimes wonder if even its supporters believe it's going to work. A better idea is a prudent withdrawal of the U.S. presence — for the sake of argument, let's say a 24-month phased drawdown of some kind, with troops left in Kurdistan and airpower available in nearby bases — that gives the Maliki government a fighting chance to establish itself in a reasonable timeframe and the U.S. military a chance to plan its pullout in the most effective possible way. At this point, we're inciting as much violence as we're stopping, and we're having virtually no effect at all on the ongoing sectarian cleansing and mounting refugee crisis. It's time to leave.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SURGE SURGE....Matt Yglesias turns on the contrarianism and argues that yesterday's soporific congressional hearing was a big win for Democrats:

The war was incredibly unpopular on the morning of September 10, 2007 so the Republicans needed not just a solid performance, but some kind of show-stopping one from Crocker and Petraeus to turn things around. A dull hearing guaranteed that the game would end in a draw, and a draw is a political win for the Democrats.

....The "surge" itself was hail mary strategy, and it didn't work. Then we had the surge of dog and pony shows, but that didn't bring anyone other than Michael O'Hanlon over to Bush's side. Now the surge of testimony has begun, and it looks to be, in essence, another dud. Something the administration's dead-ender supporters can feel good about, but that's not going to change the public's accurate perception that if ever there were a time when this policy could have been saved, it came and went years ago.

This sort of confirms my view that contrarianism should be attempted only by people named Kinsley — and probably not even by him anymore.

This seems exactly backward to me. All the White House needs is enough support to prevent Congress from defunding the war, and the August PR surge more than accomplished that (it wasn't just O'Hanlon who came home from Iraq burbling about the Dora market). To have any hope of affecting the course of the war, Democrats need a home run of some kind, something that really puts pressure on congressional Republicans and therefore on George Bush. That didn't happen, and that means both the surge and the war will continue. It may be a low bar, but that's a win for Bush. Right?

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By: Kevin Drum

EXIT STRATEGY....An admirably straightforward analysis from Paul Richter of the LA Times today:

Bush policy to bequeath Iraq to successor

The talk in Washington on Monday was all about troop reductions, yet it also brought into sharp focus President Bush's plans to end his term with a strong U.S. military presence in Iraq and to leave tough decisions about ending the unpopular war to his successor.

...."Bush has found his exit strategy," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former government Mideast specialist now at the Brookings Institution.

It's nice to see that someone outside the blogosphere gets this.

Kevin Drum 1:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (127)

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September 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DOUBLE, DOUBLE, TOIL AND TROUBLE....This is an obvious point to make, but I want to make it anyway. Just in case there's anyone who doesn't know this.

Surge discussions often go something like this: At the beginning of the year we had 132,000 troops in Iraq. Now we have 160,000. That's only a 20% increase in troop strength, and it's ridiculous to think that such a small increase could have a serious effect on the country.

But that's exactly backwards. The surge was always intended primarily to target Baghad, and in Baghdad U.S. troop strength approximately doubled, from 17,000 to 34,000. Frankly, with an increase like that, you'd expect some pretty tangible results.

And yet, at best, we've seen only a modest drop in violence in Baghdad. So what we're seeing is not a case of too few troops to make a difference. It's worse. We increased troop numbers dramatically and deployed them more effectively, and it still barely made a noticeable difference.

That's the depth of the problem we're dealing with: even doubling our troop presence and utilizing them properly hasn't had much effect on security in Iraq — and it hasn't had any effect on the political situation. Given this, does anyone seriously think that a mere six additional months of the surge will change the underlying dynamics in Iraq enough to have made a permanent difference? Really?

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By: Kevin Drum

QUESTIONS FOR GEN. PETRAEUS....Apparently Petraeus is counting "IED hoaxes" in the PowerPoint slide that shows a sharp decrease in IED attacks. That seems odd, doesn't it? John Cole would like to see that chart replotted with just the actual IED attacks themselves. Me too.

Josh Marshall, meanwhile, notes that Petraeus told Congress that two intelligence agencies signed off on his methodology for calculating civilian death rates. That's only two out of 18, which isn't so hot, but he'd still like to know which ones they were. Me too.

For myself, I'll just note the same thing I noted over the weekend: all the charts for civilian fatalities show basically the same trend: a big pre-surge drop between December and March, no progress from March through July, and then a modest drop in August. So Petraeus is hanging nearly his entire case on a single month.

BONUS POWERPOINT NOTE: Slide #12 shows the readiness of the Iraqi army. Level 1 means "fully independent." Level 2 means "Iraqi lead with coalition support."

So four years into this thing, how are we doing in getting Iraqi army units up to speed? Answer: at the beginning of the year we had 15 Level 1 units. Today we have 12. Level 2 units have gone from 78 to 83. Some progress.

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By: Kevin Drum

PETRAEUS'S DRAWDOWN....This slide from Gen. David Paraeus's testimony today is a work of art, isn't it? It looks like some kind of timeline for withdrawal, but all it actually says is that we'll withdraw five brigades by next July, something we already know is driven not by strategic considerations but by operational realities, and that eventually — someday — we'll draw down to five brigades. Could be tomorrow, could be ten years from now, but hey — the slide shows troops levels going down, and that's the graphic that counts.

And the target date for deciding whether the actual date is tomorrow or 2017? March of 2008, exactly six months from now. Sometimes these guys make Atrios's job too easy.

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By: Kevin Drum

COOKING THE BOOKS....Is it just me, or does anyone else think that Republicans are making a big mistake by spending all their TV time this morning complaining about accusations that Gen. Petraeus is cooking the books in his assessment of progress in Iraq? Repeating the accusation, even if it's only to denounce it, is still repeating the accusation. And it means that everyone watching today's hearing is learning over and over and over that a lot of people don't trust Petraeus, something they might not have known before since Democrats aren't mentioning it and not everyone reads the inside pages of the New York Times.

This strikes me as a very dumb thing to do.

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC OPINION IN IRAQ....So what do Iraqis think of the surge? Marc Lynch summarizes a recent poll of 2,000 residents:

The BBC/ABC/ NHK survey, conducted in all 19 provinces during August, finds that 70% of Iraqis believe that security has deteriorated in the areas covered by the US "surge", and 11% say it has had no effect. Only 11% say that security in the country as a whole has improved in the last six months. And 70% say that the conditions for political dialogue have gotten worse in the last six months. Bottom line: Iraqis overall, and especially Sunnis, are more opposed to the American presence than ever, do not think the surge has accomplished either its military or its political goals, and have dwindling confidence in the US forces.

Now, polls should always be taken with a grain of salt, but even so, Marc notes the astonishing fact that only 1% of Sunnis support the American presence in Iraq and only 1% of Sunnis say that security has improved in Iraq as a whole in the last 6 months. And that's after the Anbar Awakening.

Elsewhere in the poll, 47% of Iraqis say they want us to leave immediately, up from 35% before the surge. And what happens if we do? Only 35% think that an American withdrawal will make civil war more likely, while 46% say civil war would be less likely.

Technical issues aside, the surge can't work if this is how the Iraqi public views the U.S. presence. It's time to face facts.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PRESS ON IRAQ....Because we don't do this very often in the blogosphere, I'd like to mention that the press has done a pretty outstanding job of reporting on Iraq and the surge over the past week or so. The reporting has mostly been detailed, ground level, extensive, and properly skeptical without denying the modest progress that appears to be genuine. I've linked to a bunch of it already, but here's a quick sample of some of the pieces that ran over the weekend:

  • The LA Times on Anbar: "Military and political leaders warn against resting hopes for all of Iraq on this province, where U.S. forces are empowering, and even arming, the people who once fought them."

  • McClatchy on the surge: "Interviews with Iraqis, statistics on violence gathered independently by McClatchy Newspapers and a review of developments in the country since the U.S. began increasing troop strength here last February provide little reason for optimism."

  • AP on tricky statistics: "In vertical bars of blue, green, gray and red, a briefing chart prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency says what Gen. David Petraeus won't. Insurgent attacks against Iraqi civilians, their security forces and U.S. troops remain high, according to the document obtained by The Associated Press."

  • The New York Times on security in Baghdad: "More than 160,000 American troops are now in Iraq to help secure 25 million people. Across Baghdad — which undoubtedly remains a crucial barometer — American and Iraqi forces have moved closer to the population, out of giant bases and into 29 joint security stations. But even as some neighborhoods have improved, others have worsened as fighters moved to areas with fewer American troops.....Sunnis and Shiites still fear each other. At the top levels of the government and in the sweltering neighborhoods of Baghdad, hatreds are festering, not healing."

  • The New York Times on the Dora market: "American Stryker battalions fought their way into the town in May and June....and one third of the 900 shops in the main market reopened....In mid-August [American commanders] conceded that many insurgents simply fled to south Dora on the fringes of the area covered by the new military strategy where they did not have the manpower to expand."

    More neighborhood coverage here.

Good stuff, and the bits and pieces I've seen on CNN this morning have been pretty good too. Kudos to the media this week.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

AMERICAN PUBLIC STILL SMARTER THAN YOU THINK....There's a considerable amount of fascinating data in the latest New York Times/CBS poll, but for now I'll just highlight this question:

77% of the public wants us to leave Iraq within 24 months. Good job, public! By way of comparison, I was at a super-secret LA blogger get-together on Sunday and asked a tableful of liberal bloggers how long they'd be willing to extend a withdrawal from Iraq if the pullout timetable were credible. I got a couple of answers of two years and a whole bunch of head nods. So even fire-breathing liberals are willing to allow 24 months to give the Maliki government some breathing space and the generals time to withdraw safely.

In other poll news, one-third of Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in 9/11. Sheesh. On the other hand, this is down from 51% five years ago, which I suppose is a good sign. Similarly, one-third of Americans correctly guessed that Shiites were the majority group in Iraq. I'll bet those were different thirds, though.

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By: Kevin Drum

NEWS FLASH....Liberals and conservatives think differently. Now proven by neuroscience!

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September 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE CHAOS HAWKS....In the beginning were the War Hawks, and much did they counsel the powerful to do battle against the evildoer Saddam. Then came the war, and the looting, and the Heritage Foundation hordes, and the hawks lamented exceeding loud and many soon repented of their ways. Yea, verily, they presently transformed themselves into Pottery Barn Hawks, eager to fix the disaster they had helped create and thus redeem themselves in the eyes of the faithful. In the fullness of time, though, the disaster ripened and flowered and became impossible of resolution, and the hawks despaired. Success had become unachievable, yea unto their own generation and the generation to come after them. In short, life sucked.

So what's a Pottery Barn hawk to do? The answer, lately, is: become a Chaos Hawk. First, admit that Iraq is hopeless, thus demonstrating that you're not completely out to lunch. After all, the surge has produced only tiny gains in a few highly localized areas and has no chance of replicating those successes on a wide scale. The Iraqi government is dysfunctional, the police forces are dysfunctional, the army is years away from competence, militias are engaged in a ruthless campaign of sectarian cleansing, infrastructure is declining, and refugees are fleeing the country at a rate of thousands per day.

Having admitted, however, that the odds of a military success in Iraq are almost impossibly long, Chaos Hawks nonetheless insist that the U.S. military needs to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Why? Because if we leave the entire Middle East will become a bloodbath. Sunni and Shiite will engage in mutual genocide, oil fields will go up in flames, fundamentalist parties will take over, and al-Qaeda will have a safe haven bigger than the entire continent of Europe.

Needless to say, this is nonsense. Israel has fought war after war in the Middle East. Result: no regional conflagration. Iran and Iraq fought one of the bloodiest wars of the second half the 20th century. Result: no regional conflagration. The Soviets fought in Afghanistan and then withdrew. No regional conflagration. The U.S. fought the Gulf War and then left. No regional conflagration. Algeria fought an internal civil war for a decade. No regional conflagration.

So where does this bogeyman come from? Hard to say. Probably a deep-seated unwillingness to confront the fact that the United States can't really influence a course of events we originally set in motion. But Iraq is already fighting a civil war, and that civil war will continue whether we stay or go. If we go it will likely become more intense, but also shorter lived. The eventual result, however, will almost certainly be the same: a de facto independent Kurdistan in the north and a Shiite theocracy in the south. The rest of the Middle East will, as usual, watch events unfold without doing much of anything about them, and will accept the inevitable results. The U.S., for its part, will remain in the north to protect Kurdistan, in the east in Afghanistan, in the west in the Mediterranean, and in the south in its bases in the Gulf. We'll hardly be absent from the region.

I think it's worthwhile for proponents of withdrawal to be honest about the likely aftermath of pulling out: an intensified civil war that will take the lives of tens of thousands and end in the installation, at least in the short-term, of an Iran-friendly theocracy. This is obviously not a happy outcome, but neither is it the catastrophe the Chaos Hawks peddle. The alternative is to babysit the civil war with American troops, spilling blood and treasure along the way, without truly affecting the course of events in any substantial measure.

Politically, this is the key battleground now. As long as the Chaos Hawks are able to panic the public into believing that withdrawal will result in a Middle East in flames and ten dollar gasoline at home, no Congress will have the backbone to defund the war and force a pullout. This means that it's time for more sensible regional professionals to screw up their courage and tell the truth: pulling out won't be pretty, but if it's done prudently neither will it be Armageddon. The sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can leave Iraq.

Until then, though, our foreign policy will continue to be held hostage to a senseless war that does us no good. Al-Qaeda will continue to recruit and grow, Afghanistan will slowly slip away, a shooting war with Iran will become more likely, our military will continue being stretched and drained, and our country will become less and less safe. And all for nothing. It's way past time for us to start formulating a sane national security policy for an age of terror. Leaving Iraq is the first step.

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By: Kevin Drum

WHO'S YOUR DADDY?....Earlier this year Condoleezza Rice decided it was time to talk with Iran about its funding of Shiite militias in Iraq. According to today's Washington Post, Ambassador Ryan Crocker was dubious:

When Rice told Crocker to get ready for talks with Iran, he asked her the "blindingly obvious" question of whether Vice President Cheney would allow it, a U.S. official said. Rice, according to the official, told Crocker that it "wasn't your lane," adding, "I'll work it back here. That's not your problem."

Golly. Why were they so concerned about Cheney? All they had to do was get the President of the United States on their side and that would have been that. Right? I wonder why they didn't think of that?

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By: Kevin Drum

AMERICAN PUBLIC SMARTER THAN YOU THINK....Noted without comment from a Washington Post/ABC News poll released today:

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September 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SEASONALITY REVISITED....A few days ago I argued that much of the recent decrease in violence in Iraq was probably due to normal seasonal factors: violence tends to peak in fall and spring, and drop in winter and summer. I showed this seasonality pictorially via a chart of U.S. troop fatalities, one of the few data series that's both consistent and available for the entire course of the war.

But troop fatalities are merely a proxy for violence, and an anonymous fellow who goes by the handle Engram argues that if you look directly at civilian death statistics there's no seasonality at all. Thus, the recent drop in deaths is almost certainly due to the surge.

Now, Engram is pretty seriously invested in a highly distinctive view of the sources of violence in Iraq that I won't get into here (i.e., insurgency vs. terrorism vs. civil war), and is therefore also pretty invested in demonstrating that the surge is succeeding. Still, numbers are numbers. So what does he have?

The answer is on the right: a chart of civilian casualties since March 2005 that's taken from ICCC data and modified slightly to remove some artifacts. Engram then fits a 6th order polynomial through the data to demonstrate that there's no evident seasonality.

Unfortunately, there are several problems with this. The reason I didn't use this data in the first place is because it's available for only two and a half years. That's just not long enough to show seasonality, especially with a noisy data set. Even my original chart, with 4+ years of data, was barely long enough to pick out seasonal differences from the long-term noise of Iraqi violence, and the ICCC data is nearly useless in this regard. It's simply not going to show much seasonality whether it's there or not.

There are other problems too. First, there was an enormous secular increase in violence throughout 2006. This increase is so pronounced that it drowns out any local variability in the data when 2006 makes up nearly half your series.

Second, fitting a polynomial to a small data set, even a 6th order polynomial, is going to smooth the data. If there is any seasonality, it's going to make it harder to see, not easier.

In fact, if you look at the data hidden beneath Engram's curve, you can see glimmers of seasonality that the curve is hiding. The local peaks are all in spring and fall: May and September of 2005, March and November of 2006, and May of 2007. If I wanted to, I could draw a curve through the data that shows off this seasonality — and in fact I did draw just such a curve. But it's not worth putting up. It's just fighting one ad-libbed curve with another ad-libbed curve, and there's not much point in that. There's simply not enough data here to draw a conclusion one way or the other.

The seasonality of Iraqi violence has been well known and much discussed for a long time (especially the fall peak), and the 4+ years of troop fatality data bear that out. After all, why would troop fatalities show seasonal variation unless there were also some seasonal variation in the broader violence levels? In the end, I think the data suggests that (a) violence in Iraq follows a modest seasonal pattern, (b) violence rose dramatically throughout 2006 and then began to drop before the surge began, and (c) fatality levels this summer were down only mildly compared to earlier in the year — and probably not down at all when you take seasonality into account. Bottom line: Violence is as bad as it's ever been, sectarian cleansing is proceeding at a murderous pace, Kirkuk and Basra are both timebombs, refugees are fleeing the country at staggering rates, the Iraqi infrastructure is in ruins, and the surge just doesn't seem to be having much of an effect outside of a small number of handpicked neighborhoods in Baghdad. What's more, it's having no effect on the political situation, which continues to be a sectarian disaster.

I'll end with two related points. First, no matter how many different ways you look at the civilian casualty numbers, what you're going to see is a huge increase in violence during 2006 followed by a slow decrease. That's just all there is. If you want to argue that the surge is responsible, you can do that, but since the decrease began in December of last year that requires some pretty creative torturing of the data. Or maybe the decrease is due to seasonality. Or the Anbar Awakening. Or something else. But no matter what you do, you've basically got one observation (violence rose through November 2006 and then started to decrease) and that's it.

Second, and ironically, the ICCC data gives the lie to the primary pro-surge talking point these days: namely that violence is down 75% from its peak. It's actually down by only a fraction of that amount, and the data is even more discouraging if you pick a more appropriate starting point. In February, just before the surge began, there were 1,529 civilian fatalities. In the past couple of months we've averaged....1,528 fatalities per month.

And what about the latest talking point, namely that what we really ought to be paying attention to is the single month of August, which was awesome? Aside from the fact that this doesn't really seem to be true (and the military data to the contrary seems to be very heavily massaged), you're in pretty desperate straits when you have to hang your entire case for continuing a failed policy on equivocal data from a single month. It's no way to run a war.

POSTSCRIPT: I know, I know, I know. I keep saying I'm not going to obsess over casualty stats anymore. I feel like Michael Corleone in Godfather III. What can I say?

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MYTH OF AQI....REVISITED....In our October issue, Andrew Tilghman argues that al-Qaeda in Iraq is much smaller than popularly believed, accounting for only "2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency." Earlier this week, Gen. James Jones testified before Congress that even this is a high end estimate:

BAYH: Our intelligence services and other experts have indicated publicly that in their opinion about...two percent or fewer of the adversaries that we're facing in Iraq and that the Iraqis are facing in Iraq are foreign jihadis or AQI affiliates, [and] 98 percent or more are Iraqis fighting amongst Iraqis for the future of Iraq. Is that consistent with your understanding?

JONES: I think we would agree with that. Yes.

AQI is a dangerous organization, but it's time to stop pretending that they're the main driver of violence in Iraq. They aren't. They're a small and unpopular group of fanatics who will almost certainly be wiped out whether we withdraw or not. AQI simply isn't a good reason to stay in Iraq, no matter how many times President Bush manages to say their name in a single speech.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MASTER OF DISASTER....In Slate, Fred Kaplan takes a crack at figuring out just who it was that ordered the disastrous policy of disbanding the Iraqi army shortly after the invasion. His piece includes this fascinating tidbit, which as far as I know has never been reported before:

On March 10, 2003, a week before the invasion, the National Security Council held a principals' meeting, attended by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, the Joints Chiefs of Staff, and the top aides to all these officials. They decided that after the war, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be set up — similar to such panels in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Communist Eastern Europe — to ferret out the undesirable Baathists from those who could reliably work for a post-Saddam regime. Most Baathists were ordinary, even apolitical, people whose jobs required them to join the party. A rough calculation by NSC staffers and intelligence analysts was that only about 5 percent of the party — the leaders — would have to be removed, and even they would have the right to appeal.

On March 12, at another principals' meeting, on what to do about the Iraqi military, these same top U.S. officials decided to disband the Republican Guard — Saddam's elite corps and bodyguards — but to call the regular army's soldiers back to duty and to reconstitute their units after a proper vetting of their loyalties.

Both of these decisions were unanimous. NSC staff members had briefed officials on these plans before the meetings, up and down the chain of command, and they encountered no substantive dissent.

Unanimous! And yet, the army was disbanded. But who's powerful enought to quietly overturn the unanimous decision of an NSC principals' meeting? Not Bremer. Not Powell. Not the Joint Chiefs. Not Bush. Not Rumsfeld. So who? Kaplan connects the dots:

My guess is it came from Vice President Dick Cheney, if only because his is one of the most leakproof offices in Washington. Had the order originated someplace else, that fact would have leaked by now. It's like the dog that didn't bark in the Sherlock Holmes story; unbarking dogs in this administration, especially at this late date of decrepitude, tend to be the hounds in Cheney's kennel.

But where did Cheney get the idea? A good guess here is that it came from that familiar meddler of the era: the Iraqi exile, chief neocon guru, and suave banker-mathematician, Ahmad Chalabi.

In a way, this is almost comforting. Cheney has been making disastrous decisions ever since he entered the West Wing, and it only makes sense that he'd be responsible for the ur-disaster of disbanding the Iraqi army too. Read the rest to get the whole story.

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September 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Last week was all Domino, so this week Inkblot gets the spotlight. Besides, Domino barely budges from her beloved new furniture these days, so it's tough to get a picture of anything other than her snoozing on the bench.

True confession time: the picture on the right is a fake. I Photoshopped the laser pointer trail from another picture in the same series into this one because Inkblot was either moving or out of focus in all the other ones. I just wanted to mention this before some right-wing blogger detected a slight blurring and color change near the laser trail and started up a massive campaign accusing me of fabricating catblogging pictures. The photo on the left, by contrast, is 100% real. Sleeping on a pile of warm sheets is what Inkblot does best.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUESTIONING PETRAEUS....Gen. David Petraeus's September 2004 op-ed in the Washington Post is getting renewed attention these days, and for obvious reasons. Here's an excerpt:

18 months after entering Iraq, I see tangible progress....there are reasons for optimism....Iraqi security forces are in the fight....Within the next 60 days, six more regular army and six additional Intervention Force battalions will become operational....40 of the 45 existing battalions....are conducting operations on a daily basis....1,100 graduated from the basic policing course and five specialty courses. By early spring, nine academies in Iraq and one in Jordan will be graduating a total of 5,000 police each month.

....Numbers alone cannot convey the full story....there is no shortage of qualified recruits volunteering to join Iraqi security forces....I meet with Iraqi security force leaders every day....I have seen their determination and their desire to assume the full burden of security tasks for Iraq....Momentum has gathered in recent months. With strong Iraqi leaders out front and with continued coalition — and now NATO — support, this trend will continue.

It's perfectly fair to call Petraeus out on this. He was the guy in charge of training the Iraqi army and police back in 2004-05, and this op-ed was happy talk of a spectacular order. For all intents and purposes, none of the stuff he talked about ended up happening. Three years later, the Iraqi army is still barely functional and the Iraqi police forces, by all accounts, are so thoroughly corrupt and sectarian that we'd be better off if they didn't even exist. Since Petraeus was the guy who set up much of their initial training, he deserves to be held to account for what happened.

I should add, though, that there's no reason for this to turn into a feeding frenzy of Petraeus mudslinging. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?) Anybody in charge of any project is going to tend toward over-optimism — I've played that role myself in previous lives — and the fact that Petraeus talked up troop training the past and is obviously trying pretty hard to talk up the surge today doesn't make him a fraud. It just makes him human.

An extremely talented and hard-charging human, by all accounts, but still human — and one who won't melt under the glare of the klieg lights. If we want to get to the truth, Congress should pull no punches when he testifies next week.

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By: Kevin Drum

SEEING RED....I see that Atrios had exactly the same reaction as me to today's bad job news. Usually, Wall Street reacts jubilantly to weak job reports because it means a slacker job market, less pressure to raise wages, less inflationary pressure, and therefore a reduced chance that the Fed will increase interest rates. This attitude is so short-sighted as to call into question Wall Street's collective sanity (Q: When does the stock market perform the best? A: When employment is up and the economy booms), but there you have it. That's the usual schtick.

But not today. This time they seem to have gotten the message that a lousy jobs report means....the economy isn't doing so well. I guess when their own jobs are in danger, the monthly employment report hits home a little harder than usual.

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By: Kevin Drum

CHUTZPAH WATCH....From the foreign news file:

Convicted of embezzling $110 million, Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo was deemed too important to South Korea's economy to be sent to prison, an appeals court ruled late Thursday.

....In reversing Chung's sentence, presiding Judge Lee Jae-hong told a packed courtroom in Seoul, "I was unwilling to engage in a gamble that would put the nation's economy at risk," according to the Associated Press.

....Hyundai managers say Chung is a hands-on executive, and his absence while he was in jail last year, as well as the turmoil the case caused, held up important projects and decisions.

See? That's why U.S. manufacturing is falling behind our South Korean rivals: we're too tough on our white collar criminals. Ken Lay should have tried this defense.

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By: Kevin Drum

SURVEILLING STUTTGART....The LA Times reports some background detail about the arrest of those three terrorist wannabes in Germany on Wednesday:

A U.S. intelligence intercept of suspicious communications between Pakistan and Stuttgart was the initial break that ultimately led to the arrest this week of three suspected Muslim militants accused of plotting massive car-bomb attacks here against Americans, U.S. and German officials told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.

....The counter-terrorism official described the initial intercept [last December] as "a key factor. This was a long investigation. But it helped build the case. It led to a very long period of surveillance, and the arrests. It also continued during the investigation."

This year, U.S. intelligence agents intercepted a key communication in which militant handlers in Pakistan asked for an update on the plot and pushed the suspects to move faster, according to U.S. and German officials.

Interesting. These intercepts are pretty clearly a result of the NSA surveillance program we've heard so much about, and I'd guess that U.S. officials are leaking about this in order to demonstrate the value of the program.

Here's another guess: as you recall, the NSA program was put into crisis mode last May when a FISA judge issued a ruling "telling the administration flatly that the law's wording required the government to get a warrant whenever a fixed wire is involved." This meant that NSA was required to get a warrant even for communications entirely outside the U.S., which probably put a huge crimp into the German investigation. In other words, NSA officials weren't just generically concerned about the program as a whole (though they undoubtedly were), but were specifically concerned with this particular case.

If that's true, it suggests yet again just how reckless the administration's approach to surveillance has been. Everyone — literally everyone — was immediately willing to amend the FISA law to restore NSA's capability to monitor communications between two foreign locations. The administration could have passed a bill within a week that allowed surveillance of these terrorists to start back up if they'd wanted to. Instead, we likely lost a couple of month's worth of surveillance because the White House was bound and determined not merely to fix FISA, but to expand its scope dramatically.

That was a helluva gamble. Sure, the German terrorists were already under intense surveillance by German police by that time, but the story from the U.S. folks is that the intercepts from this year were vital to the investigation too. You'd think they'd want to get that back online as soon as possible, especially for a plot whose goal was massive American fatalities. Instead they played politics until the end of July, hoping both for some partisan juju as well as a chance to increase the unfettered power of the executive branch. Nice job, guys.

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September 6, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THAT WORD DOES NOT MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS....From the "Concluding Observations" section of the Jones commission report released today:

Perceptions and reality are frequently at odds with each other when trying to understand Iraq's problems and progress. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the impressions drawn from seeing our massive logistics "footprint," our many installations, and the number of personnel (military and civilian), especially in and around the Baghdad region. The unintended message conveyed is one of "permanence," an occupying force, as it were.

Unintended? Huh?

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By: Kevin Drum

ANALYZING IRAQ....The Congressional Research Service has done its own independent analysis of Iraq, and it ain't good:

"My assessment is that because of the number and breadth of parties boycotting the cabinet, the Iraqi government is in essential collapse," Kenneth Katzman, the author of the report, said. "That argues against any real prospects for political reconciliation."

Without a political infrastructure in Iraq, any military progress would be short-lived, he added.

Katzman, who grew up in Long Island, also challenged the success of the Baghdad Security Plan, known as the troop "surge," which President Bush claims is working.

"I would even question the military progress," he said.

Many senior State Department officials in Iraq believe a political solution to the war is now "hopeless," according to a top diplomat.

"I would agree with that," Katzman said.

This comes via Steve Benen, who reminds us that we now have four separate reports (from CRS, the GAO, the Jones commission, and our embassy in Iraq) all telling us pretty much the same thing: progress on the security front is tiny at best and progress on the political front is either zero or negative.

But none of that matters, does it? Petraeus and Bush and McCain all say the surge is working. So it's working.

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By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE WRAPUP....I didn't watch the Republican debate last night — Federer-Roddick seemed like a better bet to me — but it sounds like it was a doozy on the Iraq front. Read Klein and Klein for more. Your choice is apparently between "lying," "out to lunch," "deeply misinformed," and "confused."

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By: Kevin Drum

"THAT'S WHAT I MEAN BY STRATEGIC THOUGHT"....Slate published this excerpt from Robert Draper's Dead Certain back on Tuesday, but I just got around to reading the whole thing today. It truly defies description:

Bush, as always, bridled at the request to navel-gaze. "You're the observer," he said as he worked the cheese in his mouth. "I'm not. I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself. I'll try....

"You've gotta think, think BIG. The Iranian issue," he said as bread crumbs tumbled out of his mouth and onto his chin, "is the strategic threat right now facing a generation of Americans, because Iran is promoting an extreme form of religion that is competing with another extreme form of religion. Iran's a destabilizing force. And instability in that part of the world has deeply adverse consequences, like energy falling in the hands of extremist people that would use it to blackmail the West. And to couple all of that with a nuclear weapon, then you've got a dangerous situation. ... That's what I mean by strategic thought. I don't know how you learn that. I don't think there's a moment where that happened to me. I really don't. I know you're searching for it. I know it's difficult. I do know — y'know, how do you decide, how do you learn to decide things? When you make up your mind, and you stick by it — I don't know that there's a moment, Robert. I really — You either know how to do it or you don't. I think part of this is it: I ran for reasons. Principled reasons. There were principles by which I will stand on. And when I leave this office I'll stand on them. And therefore you can't get driven by polls. Polls aren't driven by principles. They're driven by the moment. By the nanosecond."

Dan Drezner is nonplussed: "Consider the following discussion question: what is missing from George Bush's strategic thought?" His commenters immediately answer correctly: "strategy" and "thought."

Read the whole thing. If you think you can stomach it.

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By: Kevin Drum

VIOLENCE IN IRAQ....It's buried on page A16, but at least it's finally being covered: in the Washington Post today, Karen DeYoung takes a close look at violence figures in Iraq, and the headline tells the story:

Experts Doubt Drop In Violence in Iraq
Military Statistics Called Into Question

The piece is too detailed to excerpt, but the nickel version is pretty simple: even without taking seasonality into account (something DeYoung doesn't address), there's virtually no evidence that overall violence is down in Iraq. In fact, the evidence on this score is so overwhelming that the military has been reduced to complaining only that its critics aren't including the latest August data, which suggests that Petraeus is indeed going to try to hang his whole case for progress on a single month's numbers.

And even that number is dubious because it's based solely on a drop in "sectarian violence." Petraeus argues that sectarian violence is down 75% since last year, following a peak of about 1600 deaths in December. But virtually all of the drop came between December and February, before the surge had started, and even that drop is questionable thanks to dramatic and unexplained differences in various versions of Pentagon reports. See here for details. What's more, even the intelligence community is skeptical of how the Pentagon counts "sectarian" violence:

Intelligence analysts computing aggregate levels of violence against civilians for the NIE puzzled over how the military designated attacks as combat, sectarian or criminal, according to one senior intelligence official in Washington. "If a bullet went through the back of the head, it's sectarian," the official said. "If it went through the front, it's criminal."

Ilan Goldenberg summarizes: "So to recap. The violence numbers do not include: 1) Sunni on Sunni violence. 2) Shi'a on Shi'a violence 3) Car bombs 4) Getting shot in the front of the head."

Pay attention, Congress. The time for tough questioning is now, not six months from now.

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THE MYTH OF AQI....Who's responsible for the violence in Iraq? According to George Bush, the most dramatic and destabilizing attacks come from al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group supposedly responsible for the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara last year and for a spectacular truck bomb attack in Tal Afar five months ago. This view of AQI's unique lethality is widespread, but what if it's mistaken? What if AQI wasn't responsible for either of those attacks? And what if AQI is nowhere near as dangerous as everyone thinks?

Andrew Tilghman is a former reporter for Stars and Stripes who spent nine months embedded in Iraq in 2005-06. Since then he's been investigating the role of AQI and has come to the conclusion that both its size and the scope of its operations have been systematically exaggerated for political reasons. His story, "The Myth of AQI," is forthcoming in our October issue, but today we're offering a sneak preview:

What if official military estimates about the size and impact of al-Qaeda in Iraq are simply wrong? Indeed, interviews with numerous military and intelligence analysts, both inside and outside of government, suggest that the number of strikes the group has directed represent only a fraction of what official estimates claim. Further, al-Qaeda's presumed role in leading the violence through uniquely devastating attacks that catalyze further unrest may also be overstated.

....In a background briefing this July in Baghdad, military officials said that during the first half of this year AQI accounted for 15 percent of attacks in Iraq....Yet those who have worked on estimates inside the system take a more circumspect view....spectrum of estimates, ranging from 8 percent to 15 percent....But even the low estimate of 8 percent may be an overstatement.

....How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I've heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," according to Nance, "is a microscopic terrorist organization."

....The view that AQI is neither as big nor as lethal as commonly believed is widespread among working-level analysts and troops on the ground. A majority of those interviewed for this article believe that the military's AQI estimates are overblown to varying degrees. If such misgivings are common, why haven't doubts pricked the public debate?

Now, obviously AQI isn't literally a "myth." It exists. But amidst all the debate over violence levels, security benchmarks, and political progress in Iraq, the one thing that hasn't been questioned until now is the military portrayal of AQI's oversized, almost mythic role in sustaining the insurgency — as well as its political role as the last big argument for keeping U.S. troops in the country. Today Tilghman does just that. Read his whole piece to find out how and why it happened.

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September 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE WATCH....Marc Cooper spends 20 hours in the hospital and tells his story here. Price of stay without insurance: $116, 749. Price with insurance: $4,730. Only in America, folks.

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By: Kevin Drum

IS OUR BLOGGERS EDUCATED?....Just to follow up on Matt and Atrios's point about media obsessions with bloggers as semiliterate ranters, here's a quick list of the highest traffic liberal political blogs and the educational attainments of their proprietors:

  • Josh Marshall: Princeton, Brown PhD

  • Markos Moulitsas: Northern Illinois University, Boston University Law

  • Ezra Klein: UCLA

  • Duncan Black: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Brown PhD

  • John Aravosis: University of Illinois, UParis, Georgetown Law

  • Jeralyn Merritt: UMichigan, UDenver Law

  • Matt Yglesias: Harvard

  • Arianna Huffington: Cambridge

  • Brad DeLong: Harvard, Harvard PhD

  • Mark Kleiman: Haverford, Harvard PhD

  • John Amato: Hunter College

  • Glenn Greenwald: George Washington, NYU Law

  • Jane Hamsher: USC (masters)

I'm the dimwit in this crowd, boasting only a bachelors degree from Cal State Long Beach. On the other hand, I do manage to read a book or two each year, and I've traveled outside the country several dozen times in my life so far.

And before anyone gets mad, yes, I'm sure I've stupidly left someone important off this list. It's just a quick reality check for any roving journalist wondering who's behind the pixels that account for the vast bulk of liberal blog traffic.

And blog readers? Here's the 2006 BlogAds survey. It's a pretty select group.

Kevin Drum 7:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOONY SUPPLY-SIDERS....Does the Atlantic pay its bloggers by the post? They sure do burn up the pixels over there. Now that there are six of them, I conservatively estimate a combined output of approximately a brazillion words a day. (You all know what a brazillion is, right?)

Anyway, over at the Atlantic Megan McArdle has not one, but two posts about Jon Chait's book The Big Con today, and the second one begins with this odd claim:

I'm diving into Jonathan Chait's piece in The New Republic [based on the book –ed] on how a whole huge conspiracy of crazy supply-siders has taken over the Republican party. This is, to put it kindly, wildly overblown. I mean, I'm all for someone taking on the sillier kind of supply siders who fanny about claiming that tax cuts increase tax revenue, but they've been rather thin on the ground lately....Chait tars all tax-cutters with the ideas of the looniest supply siders. One can believe that tax cuts, by reducing deadweight loss and/or providing fiscal stimulus, will be good for the economy, without necessarily believing that the economy will be crippled by a 5% rate increase.

Well, yes, one can believe that. The problem, as Chait says, is that virtually no one in the Republican Party does believe it. George Bush doesn't believe it. Dick Cheney doesn't believe it. Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey and Tom DeLay didn't believe it. And judging by the astonishing pander-fest that takes place whenever taxes are mentioned in one of the Republican debates, not a single one of the Republican presidential candidate believes it.

And then there's the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which routinely suggests the nation will collapse if taxes are raised. There's the Club for Growth, ditto, plus Rush Limbaugh and his clone army. And there's Grover Norquist's tax pledge, signed by virtually every single GOP member of the House and Senate. As I said in my review of The Big Con:

There are, it's true, a few honest supply-siders who are careful about what they say: namely that some tax cuts, under some circumstances, if they're matched by spending cuts, can modestly stimulate economic growth and pay for about half their cost in the very long term. But it was never sold this way, and more than a decade ago it lost even its original tenuous groundings in reality. Instead, it's become little more than a carnival barker's cure-all: Cut taxes and the economy will boom! There isn't a practicing economist in the country who believes this, but that hasn't stopped Republican primaries from becoming virtual meat markets where the candidates vie to outbid each other over their fealty to tax cuts today, tax cuts tomorrow, tax cuts forever.

The proposition that tax cuts are the answer to all problems and that tax increases are little more than naked invitations to economic disaster is, as near as I can tell, almost universally accepted by Republican politicians and conservative think tanks. Even ur-supply-sider Bruce Bartlett has gotten fed up with it. I'd call this loony supply sidism, and far from being thin on the ground, I'd say it continues to have a stranglehold on conservative discourse. Anybody want to seriously argue this?

Kevin Drum 5:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

TRIBES vs. THE CENTER....Lt. Col. David Kilcullen is an Australian anthropologist and counterinsurgency expert who has just finished a tour as a senior advisor to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. He's a very interesting guy (I've written about him before here), and a week ago he published a long post at the Small Wars Journal blog recounting his experience working with the Sunni tribal leaders who have spearheaded the much-acclaimed Anbar Awakening. It contains a wealth of interesting detail about how the Sunni revolt got its start (marriage customs were a key driver) and how the tribal structure of Iraq works. It's well worth taking some time to read.

That said, take a look at the following passage explaining the American decision to support and arm the Sunni tribes:

Our dilemma in Iraq is, and always has been, finding a way to create a sustainable security architecture that does not require the "coalition-in-the-loop", thereby allowing Iraq to stabilize and the coalition to disengage in favorable strategic circumstances. But taking the coalition out of the loop and into "overwatch" requires balancing competing armed interest groups, at the national and local level. These are currently not in balance, due in part to the sectarian bias of certain players and institutions of the new Iraqi state, which promotes a belief by Sunnis that they will be permanent victims in the new Iraq.

....The presence of local Sunni security forces...reassures Sunni leaders that they will not be permanently victimized in a future Iraq. It may thus make such leaders more willing to engage in the political process, functioning as an informal confidence-building measure, and it may help marginalize al Qa'ida. This might represent a step toward an intra-communal "balance of power" that could potentially be quite stable over time.

Kilcullen's language here is delicate ("sectarian bias of certain players," "permanent victims," etc.), but when you cut away the clutter he's providing a remarkably straightforward admission from a senior source about what's really going on: Sunnis are currently unwilling to trust their security to the Shiite-dominated army and police because they're convinced they'd be slaughtered the minute the Americans left. So we're arming the Sunni tribes in hopes of creating a "competing armed interest group."

Now, Kilcullen does his level best throughout his piece to persuade us that the upshot of arming both sides in the Iraqi conflict will be to (a) eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq, (b) reduce the appeal of extremists whose main selling point to the public has been protection from AQI (a dubious proposition), and (c) create a "revolt of the center against both extremes" (a very dubious proposition). In the end, he says, "tribes' rights may end up playing a similar role to states' rights in some other democracies."

Well, maybe so, and you can read his whole piece to see if you're convinced. I can't say that I am, especially given Kilcullen's candid admission at the end of his piece that this strategy is not only completely accidental, but that it's essentially designed to undermine the central government. He argues heroically that "the national government is jumping on board with the program," but I've seen precious little evidence of that. In fact, just the opposite: Maliki is already unhappy about American cooperation with the Sunni tribes and has been saying so ever more loudly in recent weeks. As the American strategy becomes clearer (in no small part thanks to pieces like Kilcullen's), at some point the national government and the Shiite militias are going to decide that they've had enough and begin a revolt of their own.

It's nicely contrarian to argue that arming both sides in a communal civil war will lead to a balance of power and relative peace, but it's never happened before and Iraq sure seems like a poor place to try to make it happen for the first time. More likely it's going to eventually lead to even more bloodshed than we'd have gotten otherwise. If Kilcullen's take is correct, we're pursuing a strategy that's not just desperate, but almost certainly foolhardy.

Kevin Drum 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Shannon Brownlee

HOSPITAL ERROR....Two large studies, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that cutting the grueling work hours of doctors-in-training had little effect on reducing hospital errors and patient deaths. Surprised? So were the researchers who did the studies.

There are three possible explanations. One, most errors aren't caused by groggy, sleep-deprived, over-worked residents, so giving them more time off won't make any difference in the error rate. Two, the new regulations, which cut residents' typical workweek from 100 hours to 80, didn't reduce their hours enough to make a difference. I mean c'mon, 80 hours a week still doesn't leave much time for eating and sleeping and all those romantic couplings we see on television shows like "ER" and "Gray's Anatomy." Or, three, the number of mistakes made in hospitals is so large, any drop in the errors committed by residents was too small to be measured.

My vote goes to . . . well, let me just offer a couple of statistics. In its seminal 1999 report on the subject, To Err is Human, the Institute of Medicine estimated that as many as 98,000 American patients are killed each year by medical error. Hospitals are such complicated places, the ways that care givers can screw up are almost too numerous to count. A doctor can accidentally perforate a patient's colon during a colonoscopy, leading to infection. Surgeons leave devices or sponges inside wounds and stitch patients up. One intensive care unit that tracked near misses reported 1.7 errors per day per patient, about 30 percent of which could have been serious or fatal.

I know a doctor who was asked by another physician in the ER to check the blood pressure on both arms of a patient wracked with chest pains. When he couldn't get a proper reading from one arm, because the man was writhing in pain, the other doctor assumed the patient's blood pressure was the same in both arms. That meant the patient might be in the throes of a heart attack. In fact, he was suffering from a dissecting aortic aneurysm -- a rupturing abdominal blood vessel -- not a heart attack. Had his blood pressure been obtained from both arms and found to be different, the doctors might have properly diagnosed the dissecting aneurysm in time to prevent the patient from bleeding to death.

Maybe letting residents get some rest will eventually bring down the error rate, but I doubt it. Here's why. Rested residents aren't nearly as important to reducing errors as coordinating the care that everybody in a hospital delivers.

The two studies published today suggest why that might be the case. The studies included 318,000 veterans who were cared for at Veterans Administration Hospitals and another 8.5 million Medicare recipients. It turns out, error rates did go down at VA hospitals, but not at the other hospitals in the study.

When it comes to reducing medical error, the VA health system has three things going for it that most other hospitals don't have. Numero uno, every VA hospital has a fully-functioning electronic medical records system.

This system not only helps physicians and nurses avoid many kinds of errors, like giving a patient the wrong drug, it also allows each hospital to track the treatment of every patient. Hospital safety officers can easily give physicians and nurses feedback on how they're doing when they implement any sort of error-reduction program. Other hospitals are left flailing along, hoping that they are making a dent when they initiate some new plan. VA doctors know -- and in real time.

And finally, VA hospitals do a better job of coordinating all the different people who have a hand in a patient's care. Veterans don't tend to fall through the cracks during hand-offs between one shift and the next, for instance. That's why my colleague Phil Longman's book about the Veterans Health Administration is titled Best Care Anywhere. It's also why a Democratic presidential candidate will probably be pointing to the VA in a speech later this month as one model for improving American health care.

You can find the articles at the JAMA site. They're at the top of the list.

NOTE: Longman's book is based on an article he originally wrote for the Monthly back in 2005. You can read it here.

Shannon Brownlee 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

MISCELLANY....I'm still recovering from a long, sleepless night about which the less said the better. So blogging will be slow (or nonexistent) for the next few hours. In the meantime, we foiled a terrorist plot in Germany, Tyler Cowen tells us that it's bad for a company's fortunes if its CEO's wife dies but good for its fortunes if the CEO's mother-in-law dies, and Sen. Larry Craig is still dithering over whether he's going to resign.

Oh, and Max might be gone, but the MaxSpeak replacement site is up and running. It's called EconoSpeak and you can find it here:


I'll be back in a bit. Don't bomb Iran while I'm gone.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BIG CON....I've got a review of Jon Chait's new book, The Big Con, in the September issue of the Monthly, and long story short, I liked it. Since that's kind of boring, however, I'll excerpt the part of my review most likely to annoy the largest number of people:

After six years of following the Bush administration with probably unhealthy intensity, I've come to a couple of conclusions. First, as much as the Christian right sets my teeth on edge — and oh man, do they set my teeth on edge — I've become less and less convinced that they have as much influence over the Republican Party as we secular humanist types often fear. Sure, they get plenty of symbolic bones tossed their way (abortion funding overseas, Plan B mischief, and so on), but in terms of big, substantive policy changes, they haven't exactly been winning political battles left and right, have they? Basically, they get bought off with Supreme Court appointments, and since John Paul Stevens has remained improbably hale and hearty and the next president seems likely to be a Democrat, they're probably never going to reach their Holy Grail: a court willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. Howling about this, along with continuing to fight their losing war against gay people, will probably keep them occupied in impotent (but lucrative) rage for the next decade or so.

Second, George Bush has not turned our country into Amerika. This case is a little harder to make, since there's no question that he and Dick Cheney have pursued a relentless policy of using 9/11 as an excuse to engineer ever more monarchal powers for the White House. Just to name a few: Bush routinely uses signing statements to gut laws he doesn't like but doesn't have the nerve to veto outright; the NSA is apparently data mining millions of phone calls without even a pretense at probable cause; and habeas corpus has been suspended for American citizens on Bush's mere say-so. Still, compared to the Palmer raids of the 1920s, the internment camps of the '40s, McCarthyism in the '50s, and COINTELPRO in the '60s, it's frankly remarkable that our national response to 9/11 has been as muted as it has. America may be a bit the worse for wear in the democracy department compared to six years ago, but it's still America.

If you think I'm crazy, I guess you can stop right here. But as odious as these things are, the truth is that fears of Bush the Fascist and Bush the Theocrat are little more than minstrel shows that distract us from truly taking notice of Bush the Plutocrat — and that's the Bush that really matters.

Just in case the tone of my review didn't make this clear, I'm really not trying to minimize the danger posed by either the Christian right or the Bush/Cheney mauling of the constitution over the past six years. Honest. But Bush has given lip service to the Christian right for so long that it's impossible not to believe that they're mostly getting conned along with the rest of us, and Bush's wartime monomania can be (and hopefully will be) repaired by the next occupant of the Oval Office.

The GOP's jihad against the working and middle classes, however, is far more powerful, far more insinuated into the DNA of virtually every Republican politician, and undergoes far less scrutiny by the media. The great strength of The Big Con is that rather than reciting the usual laundry list of Bush-era conservative sins — as most books of this genre do — it focuses on the four or five of them that really matter, "all of them related because they're in service to one great primal sin: the by now almost complete subordination of the modern Republican Party to business interests and the rich."

Plus I also like the subhead that someone put on the review: "Forget neocons and theocons. It's the money-cons who really run Bush's Republican Party."

Money-cons. Hmmm. Money-cons. That could catch on!

Kevin Drum 1:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

BONUS TALKING POINT....Here's the official line on why we're supposed to believe the GAO's pessimistic evaluation of progress in Iraq is just so much nonsense:

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) said Pentagon officials had told Republican leaders that the GAO had relied on outdated information....He added that lawmakers were far more interested in the assessment coming next week from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.

....The GAO concluded that all forms of violence remain high in Iraq — causing senior military officials to complain that the report did not consider statistics for August, when, they said, trends in sectarian violence and the performance of the Iraqi security forces improved.

"They use the end of July as the data and evidentiary cutoff and therefore are not taking into account any gains in any of the benchmarks that may have become more clear throughout August," one official said.

This is beyond pathetic. Even if the August numbers are good — and that's a helluva stretch in any case — are they seriously contending that we should toss out the entire previous six months and judge the surge a success based on four weeks of data? Is that the best they can do?

Kevin Drum 12:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

KEEPING UP WITH THE TALKING POINTS....One way you can tell when a PR campaign is gearing up is the sudden appearance of a raft of articles all telling a remarkably similar story. So here's the remarkably similar story that's suddenly popping up everywhere regarding the surge: Sure, there might not be any political progress in Baghdad, but there's been lots of progress at the local level and that's what really matters. You can see versions of this story here, here, and here.

Today David Sanger connects the dots and tells us directly that this flurry of similar stories is just what you think it is: a harbinger of yet another attempt to move the goalposts in Iraq.

Bush Shifts Terms for Measuring Progress in Iraq

With the Democratic-led Congress poised to measure progress in Iraq by focusing on the central government's failure to perform, President Bush is proposing a new gauge, by focusing on new American alliances with the tribes and local groups that Washington once feared would tear the country apart.

That shift in emphasis was implicit in Mr. Bush's decision to bypass Baghdad on his eight-hour trip to Iraq, stopping instead in Anbar Province, once the heart of an anti-American Sunni insurgency. By meeting with tribal leaders who just a year ago were considered the enemy, and who now are fighting Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a president who has unveiled four or five strategies for winning over Iraqis — depending on how one counts — may now be on the cusp of yet another.

There's an awful lot to say about this beyond the obvious point that this goalpost moving is a pretty desperate attempt to dig up something — anything — positive to say about political reconciliation in Iraq. For starters, there's the fact that the Anbar strategy is entirely accidental and we don't truly control it. There's the fact that one of the underlying goals of arming the Sunni tribes is a veiled desire to create an armed balance of power between Sunni and Shia that can't possibly be stable. There's the fact that we're encouraging a de facto balkanization of the country. There's the fact that even if this strategy is a good one, we don't have anywhere near enough troops to make it work on a widespread basis. And finally, there's the fact that the Shiite militias simply aren't going to allow this strategy to spread to Baghdad.

All of these things are worth posts of their own, and I might even get around to writing one or two of them sometime this week. In the meantime, just be aware that this is apparently the new talking point: national reconciliation doesn't matter anymore. Tribal reconciliation is where the action is. We'll let you know how it's going six months from now.

Kevin Drum 12:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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September 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EVERYTHING IN ITS SEASON....I've gotten a couple of emails asking me for more detail about the seasonality of violence in Iraq. There are several ways to show this graphically, but all of them present difficulties because the various data series aren't available in a consistent form for the entire course of the war.

That said, here's a chart that shows the seasonality pretty well. It comes via reader Thomas J., who has graphed U.S. troop deaths per thousand soldiers, a data series that's (a) available for every month since the beginning of the occupation, (b) highly consistent, and (c) a fairly decent proxy for the overall level of violence. The "per thousand soldiers" correction helps to control for the fact that troop fatalities will naturally be higher whenever there are more soldiers deployed in Iraq. This doesn't necessarily mean the level of violence is higher, just that the population at risk is larger.

The seasonality is pretty easy to see: violence peaks in spring, then declines during summer, peaks again in fall, and drops during winter. The peaks are probably overstated slightly thanks to unusually deadly April and November months in 2004, but even without that the seasonality is fairly pronounced. Roughly speaking, July troop casualties are typically about 40% lower than their April peak, whereas this year they were only about 30% lower. In other words, violence was worse than usual. On the other hand, August looked a little better than usual this year compared to 2007's spring peak. As always, what this means is that you can't draw any dramatic conclusions based on a couple of data points. However, taken as a whole the evidence pretty strongly suggests that the surge hasn't had any effect at all on overall violence levels. It's just moving in its usual seasonal pattern.

The obvious followup would be a similar chart showing the seasonality of civilian casualties. Unfortunately, there's simply no reliable data series for civilian casualties over the course of the war, and the data for this year in particular gives every indication of being massaged to within an inch of its life (intra-Shiite violence doesn't count, car bomb fatalities don't count, al-Qaeda attacks against Sunni tribes don't count, the figures change mysteriously from one report to the next, the supposedly lower numbers for August are classified, etc. etc.) We do have figures released by various Iraqi ministries, but we don't have a consistent series of ministry numbers for the past four years, and in any case the numbers for 2007 don't show any decline at all between spring and summer. So that doesn't suggest any surge-related decrease in violence either.

Bottom line: you should be skeptical of any claims about reductions in violence unless they take seasonality into account. So far, though, I haven't seen any credible claims of reduced violence that even mention seasonality, let alone adjust for it. That should tell you something.

Kevin Drum 9:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

RUDY!....Everything you need to know about Rudy Giuliani is right here. Honest, that's all there is to it.

Kevin Drum 5:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

DAVID ADDINGTON vs. THE WORLD....Jack Goldsmith, who headed the Office of Legal Counsel for a few tumultuous months in 2003-04, has written a book about his clashes with the White House — and specifically with Dick Cheney's attack dog, David Addington — over torture, enemy combatants, and domestic spying. It's due out later this month, but today in the New York Times Jeffrey Rosen gives us a preview:

[Goldsmith] shared the White House's concern that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act might prevent wiretaps on international calls involving terrorists. But Goldsmith deplored the way the White House tried to fix the problem, which was highly contemptuous of Congress and the courts. "We're one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court," Goldsmith recalls Addington telling him in February 2004.

In his book, Goldsmith claims that Addington and other top officials treated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act the same way they handled other laws they objected to: "They blew through them in secret based on flimsy legal opinions that they guarded closely so no one could question the legal basis for the operations," he writes. Goldsmith first experienced this extraordinary concealment, or "strict compartmentalization," in late 2003 when, he recalls, Addington angrily denied a request by the N.S.A.'s inspector general to see a copy of the Office of Legal Counsel's legal analysis supporting the secret surveillance program. "Before I arrived in O.L.C., not even N.S.A. lawyers were allowed to see the Justice Department's legal analysis of what N.S.A. was doing," Goldsmith writes.

....The heroes of Goldsmith's book — his historical models of presidential leadership in wartime — are Presidents Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both of them, as Arthur Schlesinger noted in his essay "War and the Constitution," "were lawyers who, while duly respecting their profession, regarded law as secondary to political leadership."....The Bush administration's legalistic "go-it-alone approach," Goldsmith suggests, is the antithesis of Lincoln and Roosevelt's willingness to collaborate with Congress. Bush, he argues, ignored the truism that presidential power is the power to persuade. "The Bush administration has operated on an entirely different concept of power that relies on minimal deliberation, unilateral action and legalistic defense," Goldsmith concludes in his book. "This approach largely eschews politics: the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, to compromise."

Read the whole thing for more, and be sure to keep in mind while you're reading that Goldsmith is no centrist. He's a hardcore conservative, he's unmpressed with civil libertarian arguments, he was thrilled to work with the Bush administration, he was a close friend of John Yoo, and he's convinced that we need to be on a war footing in the fight against terror. But even at that, he was appalled at what he saw during his tenure in the Justice Department.

It's worth ten or fifteen minutes of your time to read Rosen's piece. But if you just want the highlights, head over to TalkLeft. Jeralyn has 'em for you.

Kevin Drum 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE....This is sweet, isn't it?

As subprime borrowers began to default on their mortgages in rapidly growing numbers this year, credit card issuers increased their efforts to sign up such customers with tarnished financial histories, according to a market research firm.

Direct mail credit card offers to subprime customers in the United States jumped 41 percent in the first half of this year, compared with the first half in 2006, according to Mintel International Group. Direct mail offers targeted at customers with the best credit fell more than 13 percent.

Well, why not? One of the things that constrains card issuers from preying too aggressively on poor credit risks is the knowledge that their victims might go bankrupt and not pay their bills. Banks have very sophisticated models for this kind of thing, and calculating their likely losses makes them think twice about just how hard they pitch their wares to the bottom of the market.

So what happens when you reduce their exposure to bad credit risks by passing a bill that makes it all but impossible for people to declare bankruptcy and stop paying their credit card bills? The answer is obvious: banks start pitching their cards even more aggressively to consumers who are even worse credit risks. This was an easily predictable consequence of tilting the playing field in favor of credit card issuers by passing the egregious 2005 bankruptcy bill, and it's exactly what's happened. Thanks, Congress.

UPDATE: Via Megan McArdle, Yves Smith offers up another potent possibility: that the subprime lending bubble was partly caused by the bankruptcy bill in the first place. After the bill passed, consumers who were desperate to avoid the new, more onerous bankruptcy provisions ended up increasing their use of subprime cash-out refis to keep themselve afloat:

Lew Ranieri, the so-called father of mortgage backed securities, has stated that the overheated phase of subprime lending started at the end of the third quarter of 2005 and extended through most of 2006. When did the new bankruptcy law take effect? October 24, 2005. There is no ready way to prove a connection between the new law and the explosion phase of subprime growth, but consumers became much more cautious in taking on credit card debt after the law became effective. And the ones that had above median incomes which would force them into a Chapter 13 (meaning they'd have to repay their debts) might be even more eager to tap home equity if they saw themselves at risk.

I don't know how likely this explanation is, but it certainly has a lovely circular viciousness to it. Credit card companies lobby Congress to pass a bank-friendly bankruptcy bill. Consumers in financial trouble respond by avoiding extra card debt and instead tapping the subprime lending market. When that turns sour, credit card companies turn around and offer yet more card debt to desperate subprime borrowers, secure in the knowledge that their shiny new bill protects them from default. It's almost too beautiful a theory to not be true.

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

GORE AND THE PRESS....Evgenia Peretz writes in this month's Vanity Fair about media coverage of Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign. In the following passage she talks about the often vicious coverage of Gore by Kit Seelye in the New York Times:

As with all campaigns, the coverage of the 2000 election would be driven by a small number of beat reporters. In this case, two women at the most influential newspapers in the country: Seelye from The New York Times and Ceci Connolly from The Washington Post.

A prominent Washington journalist describes them as "edgy, competitive, wanting to make their mark," and adds that they "reinforced each other's prejudices."

....The disparity between [Seelye's] reporting and [Frank] Bruni's coverage of Bush for the Times was particularly galling to the Gore camp. "It's one thing if the coverage is equal — equally tough or equally soft," says Gore press secretary Chris Lehane. "In 2000, we would get stories where if Gore walked in and said the room was gray we'd be beaten up because in fact the room was an off-white. They would get stories about how George Bush's wing tips looked as he strode across the stage." Melinda Henneberger, then a political writer at the Times, says that such attitudes went all the way up to the top of the newspaper. "Some of it was a self-loathing liberal thing," she says, "disdaining the candidate who would have fit right into the newsroom, and giving all sorts of extra time on tests to the conservative from Texas. Al Gore was a laughline at the paper, while where Bush was concerned we seemed to suffer from the soft bigotry of low expectations."

It's a pretty good piece. It covers fairly familiar ground for most blog readers, I think, but does a nice job of summarizing Campaign 2000 for magazine readers who haven't heard all this stuff before. It's worth revisiting.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Shannon Brownlee

OVERTREATED....Wow! Who knew that a simple idea like putting doctors on salary (in organized, group practices like the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser) would provoke so much discussion? Thanks for all the comments.

Today, I'm going to pick up the thread from yesterday's wild ride and focus on the link between costs and unnecessary care, which is the central theme of my book.

One poster stated: "You can't just say that you're going to cut out the 5% of procedures that are harmful." OK, but instead of focusing on harmful care, let's look at unnecessary care (which, it turns out, is also harmful). The amount of unnecessary care delivered in this country isn't 5 percent. It isn't even 10 percent. It's closer to 20-30 percent. That means we're wasting between $400 billion and $700 billion on care that isn't doing us any good.

How do we know this? The best work has come out of research at Dartmouth that has uncovered wide variations in how much care patients receive in different parts of the country. The Dartmouth researchers have found a two-fold difference in per capita spending on Medicare recipients in different regions.

That difference can't be explained by variations in the price of medical services. Of course prices differ in Biloxi and Boston, but not enough to account for the two-fold variation in spending. It also can't be explained by differences in the prevalence of illness in different parts of the country. (Yes, people are generally sicker in Biloxi than in Seattle, but that can't account for the difference in spending either.)

The only explanation for it is that doctors and hospitals in different regions are giving Medicare patients a lot more — and a lot more intensive — care.

This wouldn't be a problem if all that extra care was resulting in better health outcomes. It would be great for the citizens of Boston and other places where patients receive the most care. But the extra care isn't producing better health. Studies looking at patients with specific conditions, like hip fractures or heart attacks or colon cancer, show that they aren't living longer or even healthier lives in places where they are getting more care.

That can only mean one thing: Patients who live in regions where more care is being delivered must be getting a lot of useless care.

Most of that useless care, it turns out, is done in hospitals, and the vast majority of it consists of small procedures, the "little stuff" of medicine, as Dartmouth's Elliott Fisher likes to call it. Like endoscopy — sticking a scope down a patient's throat to see why he's coughing. Like CT scans and blood tests, and little devices called vena cava filters, which are surgically implanted into a large vein in the abdomen or chest to prevent clots from reaching the lungs and causing a potentially deadly condition called a pulmonary embolism.

A good part of the useless care also consists of visits from specialists. Let's take a specific example here. During the last two years of life, the average patient who tends to get most of her care at UCLA will see a doctor 104 times. The average patient who gets most of his care at the Mayo Clinic will see a doctor 50 times during that same period. You can think of those two patients as being basically the same at the outset. Same disease. Same prognosis. Unfortunately, those 54 extra doctor visits at UCLA didn't make a difference in the outcome. But they did add nearly $4,000 to the average per capita cost of care at UCLA.

Is this happening because doctors at UCLA are rubbing their hands together, thinking up ways to pad their incomes by seeing patients more often? Of course not. They are doing the best job they know how.

Nonetheless, they are delivering a lot of unnecessary care — much of which is driven by the way different hospitals are organized and how the medical cultures within them evolve. But that's fodder for another post.

Shannon Brownlee 10:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

DISBANDING THE MILITARY....Every time you think you can't be further surprised by the Bush administration's abysmal lack of planning for postwar Iraq, something comes along to prove that you can still be surprised after all. Here's today's example. If there's a single person who comes out of this story looking good, I can't find him.

Kevin Drum 1:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

MINI-BENCHMARKS....Tina Susman of the LA Times produces another grim report card on the surge today. A few individual neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere might be safer than before, but sectarian cleansing is up, thousands of Iraqis are fleeing their homes, intra-Shiite violence is increasing, and overall figures on civilian casualties are far from encouraging:

Privately, many troops say the military buildup should have been able to do far more by now than cut the number of attacks in some neighborhoods.

Pouring troops into the capital is no doubt going to make some areas safer, said one Marine officer, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the upcoming assessment.

"I don't know anyone who said, 'Let's have an argument on whether 20,000 troops can have an impact on some neighborhoods,' " the officer said. "I heard a debate about whether a 20,000-man surge would appreciably enhance the security of the Iraqi people and end the sectarian violence so political reconciliation could occur across the country, not just in Baghdad neighborhoods."

And speaking of political reconciliation, here's what Ambassador Ryan Crocker is reduced to saying about that: "There are...if you will, mini-benchmarks where things are happening."

Mini-benchmarks. A phrase worth remembering, I'm sure.

Kevin Drum 1:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Kevin Drum

DORA MARKET....Sudarsan Raghavan produces a devastating story about the surge in the Washington Post today. The setting for his piece is one of the showcase neighborhoods that the military routinely shuttles its visitors through, and for the first time (that I've seen, anyway), he calls them what they almost certainly are: Potemkin villages.

Nearly every week, American generals and politicians visit Combat Outpost Gator, nestled behind a towering blast wall in the Dora market. They arrive in convoys of armored Humvees, sometimes accompanied by helicopter gunships, to see what U.S. commanders display as proof of the effectiveness of a seven-month-long security offensive, fueled by 30,000 U.S. reinforcements. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, frequently cites the market as a sign of progress.

"This is General Petraeus's baby," said Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, 24, of Winfield, Kan., as he set out on a patrol near the market on a hot evening in mid-August.

....[But] visits to key U.S. bases and neighborhoods in and around Baghdad show that recent improvements are sometimes tenuous, temporary, even illusory....Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus's showcase remain skeptical. "Personally, I think it's a false representation," Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge's success. "But what can I say? I'm just doing my job and don't ask questions."

....After the delegation left, Maj. Ron Minty , 36, said that the generals had wanted 300 shops open for business by July 1. By the day of the delegation's visit, 303 had opened....Still, the Dora market is a Potemkin village of sorts. The U.S. military hands out $2,500 grants to shop owners to open or improve their businesses. The military has fixed windows and doors and even helped rebuild shops that had burned down, soldiers and others said...."The Americans are giving money, so they're opening up stores," said Falah Hassan Fadhil, 27, who sells cosmetics.

1st Lt. Jose Molina, who is in charge of monitoring and disbursing the grant money, said the U.S. military includes barely operating stores in its tally. "Although they sell dust, they are open for business," said Molina, 35, from Dallas. "They intend to sell goods or they may just have a handful of goods. But they are still counted."

With enough time, money, and manpower you can secure any single neighborhood. No argument there. But how many of these showcase neighborhoods are there? Visitors could come to Iraq by the planeload and all report back that they were individually impressed with what they saw, but how meaningful is this if it turns out they all saw the same few places? Are there thousands of Dora markets around Iraq? Hundreds? A couple of dozen? My guess is the latter, but we really don't know, do we? Maybe all those visitors ought to think about getting together and comparing notes. They might discover something interesting.

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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September 3, 2007
By: Shannon Brownlee

[Note: Shannon Brownlee is the author of the upcoming book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer. She'll be guest-blogging this week on various healthcare-related topics.]

UNKIND CUTS?....Last month Blue Cross put physician reimbursement cuts into effect in California and doctors were predictably outraged. "I don't know how anybody can afford to stay in practice and accept Blue Cross rates," Dr. Charles Fishman, a San Luis Obispo dermatologist told the Los Angeles Times. "Boo hoo" was undoubtedly the response from many readers. It's hard for the average American to feel much sympathy for a profession where the median income is $215,000 a year. Soon, Medicare will be making its own cuts, and we'll hear a new round of complaints from doctors.

The point of all this cutting, of course, is to rein in spiraling health care costs. But reducing reimbursements to doctors never works in the long run, and you'd think payers would have learned that lesson by now. Why doesn't it work? Because medicine, as Dr. Arnold Relman, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, once observed, is the ultimate piece work industry. When you pay them less per "piece," physicians can and do increase the volume of services they provide in order to make up for lost income.

That means that we don't end up saving any money by tightening reimbursements. But we do end up pissing off doctors, who don't really want to have to run around doing more procedures and seeing more patients just to maintain the same income. It also means we patients can expect to be given a lot more unnecessary procedures, because when doctors do more, they don't necessarily do more of what we really need. In the 1990s, managed care trimmed physician reimbursements and an avalanche of unnecessary procedures and blood tests and CT scans was the result.

All of which is just one more reason why fee-for-service has got to go. It's a broken payment system, and it simply encourages bad quality care. Doctors need to be put on salaries.

Alan Sager, at Boston University, suggests that we take the portion of our national health care bill that already goes toward physician reimbursement — about $500 billion — and say to doctors, in effect, you can keep the money, but you have to take it in the form of a salary. Surgeons would no longer be paid separately for each surgery, and primary care physicians would no longer get a separate fee for each office visit.

We might want to redistribute the money a bit, so primary care doctors make a little more and the super-specialists make a little less. The main idea here is to recognize the fact that we can't save money by squeezing doctors, and what we ought to be doing is removing the financial incentives for giving patients care they don't need.

Shannon Brownlee 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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By: Kevin Drum

LABOR DAY IN IRAQ....Ever since World War II, American labor unions have been instrumental in helping spread democracy and labor rights throughout the world. The AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland, for example, was one of the first to recognize what was happening in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk back in 1980, and immediately offered his help to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. In the end, the AFL-CIO funneled over $4 million in aid to Solidarity, as well as both money and technical assistance to other labor movements in Eastern Europe and around the world. From Poland to Brazil to South Africa, local labor unions have played key roles in stabilizing emerging democracies, and American support for those unions has been instrumental.

So what better way to celebrate Labor Day than to link to one of my all-time favorite Washington Monthly articles, Matthew Harwood's "Pinkertons at the CPA." It's the story of how the Bush administration's anti-labor obsession led it to actively sabotage one of the few cross-cultural institutions that was genuinely happy to see American troops enter Baghdad and genuinely eager to work with us: Iraq's labor unions.

By March 2003, when the first American and allied tanks rolled into Iraq, laborites there, who had been hoping for Saddam's overthrow for decades, were mostly cheering. By mid-May, the IFTU arose out of the labor movement that had resisted Saddam for more than two decades. Composed of liberals, nationalists, and communists who represented Iraq's Mueslix-like mixture of ethnicity and faith, the IFTU was one of the few existing organizations in Iraq whose membership crossed sectarian lines.

But from the time the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took possession of Iraq, the Americans running the country not only declined to engage the labor movement in the process of building a nation, but also worked actively to undermine labor's ability to play a constructive role.

First, during his tenure, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer repealed virtually the whole Iraqi legal structure with his so-called 100 Orders. He did not, however, repeal Saddam's 1987 Labor Code, which forfeited the right of public sector workers to bargain collectively. That decision, though deeply foolish for purposes of nation-building, made perfect sense to the movement ideologues staffing the U.S. occupation.

Read the whole thing. It's a perfect nutshell description of how Heritage Foundation conservatism took priority over serious democracy promotion and economic planning in Iraq. Multiply it by a thousand, and it's the story of how conservative monomania helped wreck a country. Happy Labor Day, all you loyal Bushies.

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH'S BRAIN....The Washington Post has more dirt from Robert Draper's new Bush bio, Dead Certain, today. Turns out Karl Rove didn't want Bush to pick Dick Cheney as VP but Bush figured it couldn't do any harm. Score one for Karl. Rove also had doubts about appointing Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Score two for Karl. On the other hand, Rove also favored keeping Donald Rumsfeld on as Secretary of Defense when Bush polled his advisors in mid-2006. And Bush "hit the roof" when he learned that Rove knew about Valerie Plame after all, even after telling Bush otherwise. So call it even on the Rove-O-Meter.

What else? The White House was like a war zone, with senior aides refusing to talk to each other. Cheney thinks the main mistake we made in Iraq was not immediately installing a provisional government, just like Ahmed Chalabi recommended.

But wait. This was supposed to be a book about Bush, wasn't it? What does it say about him? Lessee. The Secret Service went crazy trying to keep up with Bush's demand for presidential bike trails whenever he was on the road. (That's why Bush was so quiet on that famous pre-Katrina videocon with FEMA head Michael Brown: he was tuckered out from a bike ride at the ranch.) He really did believe that "democracy would spring forth with little effort" in Iraq after the invasion. He doesn't really remember how and why the Iraqi army got disbanded. And he thinks Bill Clinton is a git for doing dumb stuff like hanging out at the UN in his post-presidential career.

Quite a guy, our president.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE....Starting on Monday, I'll be joined on the blog by Shannon Brownlee, author of the upcoming book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer. Shannon will be guest blogging for the next week on various medical topics, and hopefully giving us a preview of her book at the same time. Healthcare blogging is one of our regular fixtures here, so this should be fun for everyone. I hope you enjoy it.

Kevin Drum 2:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPORTS OF RUMORS....Is the Bush administration planning to launch a PR campaign after Labor Day to soften up the American public for an attack on Iran? I'll be honest: Iran rumors make the rounds of the liberal blogosphere every couple of months, and they never pan out. So I'm skeptical about the latest round of stories, despite the fact that I have little doubt about the underlying desire of George Bush and Dick Cheney to bomb Iran into the stone age if they think they can get away with it.

However, as Todd Gitlin aptly says about this, "[While I] might only be adding a link to a child's game of Telephone, I'd rather do that than shut up. If there's anything we understand about the occupants of the White House, it is that worst-case scenarios are, if not dead certain, to use the phrase of the day, worth taking seriously."

Luckily for me, Todd also rounds up all the recent evidence suggesting that an attack is in the serious planning stages, so go read his post to get the whole story. There may be nothing to this, but I'd rather get paranoid now and feel a little embarrassed later than shut up now and feel like an idiot later. Forewarned is forearmed.

Kevin Drum 1:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

VICTORY THROUGH ATTRITION....I've mentioned in passing once or twice before that one possible way for Iraq's civil war to end is simply through attrition. If we just wait it out long enough, eventually someone will win and the fighting will stop — regardless of what the United States Army does or doesn't do. Today, Newsweek puts that possibility into stark relief with a story about the massive and ongoing ethnic cleansing taking place in Baghdad right now:

The surge of U.S. troops — meant in part to halt the sectarian cleansing of the Iraqi capital — has hardly stemmed the problem. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in July was slightly higher than in February, when the surge began. According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has more than doubled to 1.1 million since the beginning of the year, nearly 200,000 of those in Baghdad governorate alone. Rafiq Tschannen, chief of the Iraq mission for the International Organization for Migration, says that the fighting that accompanied the influx of U.S. troops actually "has increased the IDPs to some extent."

When Gen. David Petraeus goes before Congress next week to report on the progress of the surge, he may cite a decline in insurgent attacks in Baghdad as one marker of success. In fact, part of the reason behind the decline is how far the Shiite militias' cleansing of Baghdad has progressed: they've essentially won.

....Citywide, Sunnis complain that in the early phases of the surge, as Shiite militias refrained from attacks on U.S. troops, the Americans focused their firepower on Sunni insurgents. The implicit trade-off — pushed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and others — was that the Shiites would scale back their sectarian attacks once they felt safer. Instead militias like the Mahdi Army have become emboldened. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top ground commander in Iraq, recently noted that 73 percent of American fatalities and injuries in Baghdad in July were caused by Shiite fighters. That same month, for the first time since 2003, Shiite militants carried out as many attacks on Coalition forces as Sunni insurgents did nationwide.

....Of course, with Sunnis cleaned out of many Baghdad neighborhoods, Shiites may turn on each other. The fighting in Karbala was only an extension of battles that have been raging in the south for months now. (In the past two weeks, two provincial governors from a rival faction were assassinated, possibly by Sadr loyalists.) Could this be the start of a civil war within Iraq's civil war?

I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to get back to blogging about "the underlying political, confessional, ethnic, and tribal issues that are driving the violence in Iraq," and that's what this story is all about. Read the whole thing. Really.

Kevin Drum 12:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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September 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE MEDIA AND THE SURGE....Gen. Petraeus may be pretty good at handling the media, but even the best media handler can only get results if the media plays along. So how has the media done? Greg Sargent takes a look at that side of the story today and he's not impressed.

Kevin Drum 2:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

AUGUST CASUALTIES....I'm really, really going to try to avoid getting sucked into posting endlessly about Iraq casualty data, since I genuinely believe that day-to-day changes don't tell us much about long-term trends. And as near as I can tell, the long-term trends in Iraq haven't changed much in the past few months, surge or no surge.

However, since I've been posting quite a bit about this lately, here's one more data point: McClatchy has the latest figures for U.S. combat deaths today, and they show a welcome decline. They also show why these numbers are tricky to tabulate and track. The August total of 57 fatalities includes only combat deaths, which is why McClatchy's number is lower than the one I posted on Friday. My chart is based on Juan Cole's figures, which are taken from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, and the ICCC totals include 19 fatalities from a pair of helicopter crashes. These don't count as "combat" deaths, but obviously they are troop casualties. Whether you count them is a matter of methodology, not a disagreement over the numbers themselves.

In any case, those are the numbers for August: 57 combat fatalities, 81 total U.S. fatalities, and 85 total coalition fatalities. Combat deaths are down compared to last August, while total deaths are up. And with that, I'm going to try to cool it on the casualty figures and go back to spending my time on the underlying political, confessional, ethnic, and tribal issues that are driving the violence in Iraq.

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

PETRAEUS AND THE REPUBLICAN CAUCUS....Yesterday I received an email from Col. Steven Boylan, the Public Affairs Officer for Gen. David Petraeus, highlighting some disagreements with my Saturday post titled "General Petraeus's PR Blitzkrieg." His full email is below the fold, and for the most part it's a straightforward defense of the way Petraeus has handled briefings with the press and analysts. However, Boylan also pointed out a significant error: I quoted Andrea Mitchell saying that Petraeus had met privately with the Republican caucus in March and had promised progress by August. In fact, Mitchell partially retracted her report a few days later:

MITCHELL: He's been telling senators — he had, in fact, a closed-circuit briefing for the senators, Democrats as well as Republicans, and he is telling them that he will report some progress, that he hopes to be able to report some progress by August....But in his closed briefing — they went over to the Pentagon and had that briefing, Democrats as well as Republican senators, and he made it clear to them that he thinks he can report some progress.

The rest of Boylan's response is below the fold if you want to read his full message.


I would agree that the open sources are a good check, however, many times those sources are not complete, out of context and fail to provide the proper or full characterization of the events they are describing.

I will clip the areas that are in error and provide you comment.

1. For months the military transports to Baghdad have been stuffed with analysts and congress members, and every one of them has gotten a full court press of carefully planned and scripted presentations, tightly controlled visits to favored units, and assorted dollops of "classified" information designed to flatter his guests and substantiate his rosy assessments without the inconvenience of having to defend them in public.

Response: Many of the analysts have come into Iraq on commercial flights via Jordan. Visits are only controlled based on timelines and desires of the Congressional members. They inform both the Embassy and MNF-I on what they want to see and if it is possible based on the timelines they have established to be in Iraq, then they go where they have requested and see who they have requested.

2. Next is a Washington Post article providing a glimpse of Petraeus's meticulous and politically savvy planning:

The sheets of paper seemed to be everywhere the lawmakers went in the Green Zone, distributed to Iraqi officials, U.S. officials and uniformed military of no particular rank. So when Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) asked a soldier last weekend just what he was holding, the congressman was taken aback to find out.

In the soldier's hand was a thumbnail biography, distributed before each of the congressmen's meetings in Baghdad, which let meeting participants such as that soldier know where each of the lawmakers stands on the war. [See examples here.]

....Just who assembled them is not clear. E-mails to U.S. Central Command's public affairs office in Baghdad this week went unanswered.

"I had never seen that in the past. That's new," said Porter, who was on his fourth trip to Iraq. "Now I want to see what they're saying about me," he added, when he learned of the contents of his travel companions' rap sheets.

For one, the quotations appeared to be selected to divide the visitors into those who are with the war effort and those who are against.

Response: First, the sheets of paper were open-source bio's that were put together based on the members' web sites and the Congressional Quarterly. Second, these bio's were provided to those that were going to meet with the members, just as the members recieve bio's of the key individuals they are going to meet with at their request. Third, the bio's are only there to assist those that they are meeting with to know how in-depth and the members background knowledge based on topic area that they will be discussing. For example, if a member is not part of the HASC or SASC, more explanations may be required on the military programs/operations than with those that are members of those committees that are more likely to be familiar with the terms of reference. As such if there is a member dealing in appropriations, those that they are meeting with will know from which direction they may approach issues and can be better prepared to respond. This is the simple thing of knowing your audience, nothing more, and to suggest otherwise is completely false. In addition, the reporter failed to provide any comments from MNF-I and to say we could not be reached is sloppy journalism as the Washington Post has a bureau in Baghdad and knows how to reach any number of us 24/7.

3. Finally there was this tidbit offered up by Andrea Mitchell five months ago when the surge was just getting started:

MITCHELL: Petraeus went to the Republican caucus and told them, I will have real progress to you by August....The Republicans were against the surge but they felt it was fait accompli, and that they were willing to give Petraeus until August. He told them there will be real progress by August.

Five months ago Petraeus was guaranteeing to wavering Republicans that they'd see progress in August, precisely the month when the PR campaign was scheduled to go into high gear. Today he's issuing dire warnings about al-Qaeda hegemony and nine-dollar gas if we leave, circulating bio pages that let his staff know whether they're dealing with friend or foe among visiting congress members, and insisting repeatedly that violence is down in classified briefings where he doesn't have to publicly defend his figures.

Response: If you go back you will see that Andrea Mitchell corrected her mistake as Gen Petraeus did not address the Republican caucus. This was in March of this year and it was an open session to both sides of the aisle and in fact, there were members of the Democratic party in attendance. This was at the request of the Department of Defense to provide an update to leading members of Congress (all sides). Gen Petraeus never said that he will have "real progress to you by August." He did say that the earliest he could determine if there was any progress and a potential for success would be late summer or early fall. The reson for that was that he would not have all the surge forces in place until mid-June and it would take a minimum of 90-days or more to get an indication of the effects the surge was having. You also need to know that Mitchell was not in attendance.

Hope this helps to clarify what is in error in your article and thereby may change the tone and charecterization as well.

Best always and please feel free to contact me at any time to fact check the open sources as needed.


Colonel, US Army
Public Affairs Officer to the
Commanding General
Multi-National Force-Iraq
Baghdad, Iraq

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FANTASTIC FREEDOM INSTITUTE....George Bush talks about retirement with author Robert Draper:

First, Mr. Bush said, "I'll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol' coffers." With assets that have been estimated as high as nearly $21 million, Mr. Bush added, "I don't know what my dad gets — it's more than 50-75" thousand dollars a speech, and "Clinton's making a lot of money."

Then he said, "We'll have a nice place in Dallas," where he will be running what he called "a fantastic Freedom Institute" promoting democracy around the world. But he added, "I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch."

This guy is president of the United States? Seriously?

Kevin Drum 2:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (100)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE CASUALTY FIGURES.....The New York Times, which has its own source in the Iraq Interior Ministry, today reports civilian casualty figures that differ somewhat from the AP figures the LA Times printed yesterday:

American and Iraqi government officials here are extremely reluctant to provide regular, comprehensive figures for civilian deaths, making it difficult to compile accurate data. But figures provided to The New York Times by an Interior Ministry official who asked to remain anonymous indicated that 2,318 civilians died violently in the country in August, compared with 1,980 in July.

....But the figures provided by the Interior Ministry official show a drop in deaths within Baghdad, to 656 in August from 896 in July.

Without arguing over the exact numbers, this sounds about right to me: Casualties are probably down a bit in Baghdad but up in the rest of the country. This jibes with the widespread prediction that one of the main effects of the surge would be to temporarily drive the insurgency (or some part of it, anyway) to areas of the country with lower troop concentrations. Put troops in Baghdad and the insurgents melt away and fight elsewhere. Follow them to their new home and they'll undoubtedly melt away and return to Baghdad. Or so I'd guess, anyway.

In any case, treat this as yet more raw data. One note, though: I don't know how the July and August numbers compare to last year, since the Times didn't provide that information. This makes it impossible to do a seasonal comparison.

Kevin Drum 2:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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September 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FOOTBALL!....I know that my loyal readers have been waiting impatiently since January for USC football threads to start up again, and tonight's the night! Can't you feel the excitement as the Trojans take on the fabled University of Idaho ....um....what are they, anyway? Oh yeah, Vandals. The University of Idaho Vandals.

Anyway, here's hoping that this isn't a premonition of things to come when top ranked teams take on lightly regarded nobodies.....

Kevin Drum 10:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

REFUGEE UPDATE....Hilzoy takes a look today at how the United States is doing on the Iraqi refugee front. Answer: not so good. With just a little more effort, we might surpass Norway.

Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Kevin Drum

VIOLENCE IN IRAQ....The LA Times, in a survey of fatalities that doesn't try to cherry pick the data, provides its latest summary of civilian violence in Iraq:

Bombings, sectarian slayings and other violence related to the war killed at least 1,773 Iraqi civilians in August, the second month in a row that civilian deaths have risen....The numbers are based on morgue, hospital and police records and come from officials in the ministries of Health, Defense and the Interior. The statistics appear to indicate that the increase in troops ordered by President Bush this year has done little to curb civilian bloodshed, despite U.S. military statements to the contrary.

Military officials have said the security plan is showing progress because the number of attacks on civilians has decreased and sectarian killings have dropped....The U.S. military says the numbers it gathers are lower than those provided by Iraqi ministries, but it does not release them.

The chart above shows war-related violent deaths for the entire year of 2007 as compiled by the Times. What's remarkable is that not only does it not show any decrease since the beginning of the surge in February, but it doesn't even show a significant dip during summer, traditionally the quietest season in Iraq.

It's simply not plausible that the Pentagon has credible numbers demonstrating that the surge is successful but is refusing to release them. No agency refuses to release good news that it can back up rigorously, after all. Bottom line: If the Pentagon wants to continue claiming that violence in Iraq is down due to the surge, it had better start producing public numbers and public justification for its methodology, and it had better start doing it fast. From where I sit, their classified briefings look more like politically motivated flimflammery than an honest accounting of progress.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

GENERAL PETRAEUS'S PR BLITZKRIEG....I've been thinking about the whole David Petraeus issue for the past couple of days, and what I've been thinking about is how badly the liberal blogosphere and the liberal establishment have been outplayed here. While we've spent the last six months snarking about Friedman Units and complaining aimlessly about spineless Democrats, Petraeus has been slowly and methodically carrying out an extremely disciplined military campaign with a very precise goal: gaining support for David Petraeus and the surge.

In retrospect, this is hardly a surprise. Petraeus is a four-star general, by all accounts a brilliant man, and a professional student of counterinsurgency. He's keenly aware of the value of both the media and public opinion, and he did what any counterinsurgency expert would have counseled in his circumstances: he unleashed a hearts-and-minds campaign aimed at opinion makers and politicians. For months the military transports to Baghdad have been stuffed with analysts and congress members, and every one of them has gotten a full court press of carefully planned and scripted presentations, tightly controlled visits to favored units, and assorted dollops of "classified" information designed to flatter his guests and substantiate his rosy assessments without the inconvenience of having to defend them in public.

And it's worked. Even though there's been no discernable political progress, minimal reconstruction progress, and apparently no genuine decrease in violence, he's managed to convince an awful lot of people that the first doesn't matter, the second is far more widespread than it really is, and the third is the opposite of reality. To get a sense of just how long and how carefully Petraeus has been preparing for his August blitz, consider the following three anecdotes. First up is Thursday's widely reported comment from Rep. Jon Porter about his meetings with Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker:

"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.

Next is a Washington Post article providing a glimpse of Petraeus's meticulous and politically savvy planning:

The sheets of paper seemed to be everywhere the lawmakers went in the Green Zone, distributed to Iraqi officials, U.S. officials and uniformed military of no particular rank. So when Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) asked a soldier last weekend just what he was holding, the congressman was taken aback to find out.

In the soldier's hand was a thumbnail biography, distributed before each of the congressmen's meetings in Baghdad, which let meeting participants such as that soldier know where each of the lawmakers stands on the war. [See examples here.]

....Just who assembled them is not clear. E-mails to U.S. Central Command's public affairs office in Baghdad this week went unanswered.

"I had never seen that in the past. That's new," said Porter, who was on his fourth trip to Iraq. "Now I want to see what they're saying about me," he added, when he learned of the contents of his travel companions' rap sheets.

For one, the quotations appeared to be selected to divide the visitors into those who are with the war effort and those who are against.

Finally there was this tidbit offered up by Andrea Mitchell five months ago when the surge was just getting started:

MITCHELL: Petraeus went to the Republican caucus and told them, I will have real progress to you by August....The Republicans were against the surge but they felt it was fait accompli, and that they were willing to give Petraeus until August. He told them there will be real progress by August.

Five months ago Petraeus was guaranteeing to wavering Republicans that they'd see progress in August, precisely the month when the PR campaign was scheduled to go into high gear. Today he's issuing dire warnings about al-Qaeda hegemony and nine-dollar gas if we leave, circulating bio pages that let his staff know whether they're dealing with friend or foe among visiting congress members, and insisting repeatedly that violence is down in classified briefings where he doesn't have to publicly defend his figures.

If these don't sound like the actions of an honest broker to you, they don't to me either. They sound like elements of a campaign with one overriding purpose: to convince politicians and opinion makers that we're making progress in Iraq regardless of whether we are or not. We're only seeing the results of Petraeus's PR blitzkrieg now, but it's obviously been in the works for months and it's been a smashing success. The general has profoundly outplayed the amateurs on their home turf.

Bravo, general. Well played.

UPDATE: I didn't know this when I wrote this post, but Andrea Mitchell partially retracted her comment about Gen. Petraeus a couple of days after she made it. Details here, along with a response from Petraeus's public affairs officer.

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

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