Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

RUDY UPDATE (AFTERNOON EDITION)....Dick Polman runs down the evolving list of excuses Rudy has offered up for hiding security detail expenses in obscure city agency accounts here.

Excuse #5 — I did it in order to help the men in blue get their expenses reimbursed more quickly — never made sense in the first place (why not just do it openly if that's the real reason?), but in any case gets shot down here:

The current New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said today he knew of no problems with the delay of payments before Giuliani was mayor, when Kelly served under Mayor David Dinkins, or since.

"I don't recall anybody, any statements about delay," Kelly told reporters.

He said all bills for the police details for Dinkins and now for Mayor Mike Bloomberg are handled directly "through the police department."

Meanwhile, Rudy's campaign is in full panic mode, flatly refusing to talk to the press:

"We've already explained it," he said, walking past reporters after a town hall meeting.

Giuliani, who is normally friendly to reporters, bristled past them, and campaign staffers were unusually physical in keeping the press away. Several campaign aides told campaign reporters to return to the press area, and some of his security detail manhandled reporters.

"We've already explained it." Uh huh. I sure hope he doesn't think that excuse is going to tide him through the upcoming week.

Kevin Drum 8:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

COWBOYING IN LEBANON....It looks like Middle East reporting problems are everywhere. Today NRO, responding to some complaints about W. Thomas Smith Jr.'s "public cowboying" from Beirut — as well as the accuracy of some his reporting — admits that they "should have provided readers with more context and caveats in some posts from Lebanon this fall."

Smith's explanation is here. As near as I can tell, the problem is that he made some pretty dramatic claims about Hezbollah activity that were couched as eyewitness reports, when in reality they were based on quick automobile drive-bys combined with tips from anonymous sources:

In retrospect, however, this is a case where I should have caveated the reporting by saying that I only witnessed a fraction of what happened (from a moving car), with broader details of what I saw ultimately told to me by what I considered then — and still consider to be — reliable sources within the Cedar Revolution movement, as well as insiders within the Lebanese national security apparatus. As we were driving through that part of town, I saw men I identified as Hezbollah deployed at road intersections with radios. I was later told that these were Hezbollah militants deploying to Christian areas of Beirut, and there were four or five thousand of them.

Since then, I have not been able to independently verify that "thousands" of armed Hezbollah fighters deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in late September, but my sources continue to insist that it happened.

Well, we all make mistakes. Live and learn, eh? Whether the New Republic will be so charitable remains to be seen.

Kevin Drum 7:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....We have paper bags around all the time, but for some reason Domino decided that this week was paper bag week. I actually got a few good pictures of her while fiddling around with my camera's flash, but sadly for her I discarded them all in favor of this one, just because it's so comic book perfect. Not only does she have laser beam eyes, but she looks like she's ready to use them. It's a good thing Inkblot wasn't around.

Speaking of Inkblot, that's him on the left in a picture from last week. Right now it's raining, if you'll excuse the expression, cats and dogs, so there are no good photo ops at the moment. This picture, however, recalls happier, sunnier days.

Kevin Drum 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Kevin Drum

CORN STARCH....E.J. Dionne notes that although the Republican presidential candidates are usually full of blustery talk about the evils of big government, they're a wee bit more cagey when it comes to specific examples that might be unpopular in early primary states:

Oh, yes, the candidates were all for big spending cuts — but only of the vague, across-the-board variety. When the brave foes of Washington's largess were confronted with a question about eliminating farm subsidies, they morphed into big-government guys.

Bold about slashing budgets earlier in the debate, Giuliani was judiciousness itself when it came to farmers. Farm spending cuts, he insisted, should not be done "simplistically." No, no, "we've got to do this very carefully."

Romney, who kept coming back to the dangers of runaway government outlays, insisted that farm subsidies were different because "it's important for us to make sure that our farmers are able to stay on the farm." Romney helpfully explained all this opportunism by ticking off the list of states besides Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating caucus, where farmers loom large. He sounded as if he were merrily counting delegate votes in his head.

Plus, guarding our precious food supply is a national security issue. Also a basic matter of anti-Europe fairness. And a boon for struggling family farmers. Uh huh.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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SUDAN....I've missed commenting on a lot of stories this week just out of sheer busy-busy, and one of them was the conviction of a British teacher in Sudan for allowing the kids in her class to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Here's the aftermath:

Thousands of Sudanese, many armed with clubs and knives, rallied Friday in a central square and demanded the execution of a British teacher convicted of insulting Islam for allowing her students to name a teddy bear "Muhammad."

..."Imprisoning this lady does not satisfy the thirst of Muslims in Sudan. But we welcome imprisonment and expulsion," the cleric, Abdul-Jalil Nazeer al-Karouri, a well-known hard-liner, told worshippers. "This an arrogant woman who came to our country, cashing her salary in dollars, teaching our children hatred of our Prophet Muhammad," he said.

....Most Britons expressed shock at the verdict by a court in Khartoum, alongside hope it would not raise tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain.

"One of the good things is the U.K. Muslims who've condemned the charge as completely out of proportion," said Paul Wishart, 37, a student in London. "In the past, people have been a bit upset when different atrocities have happened and there hasn't been much voice in the U.K. Islamic population, whereas with this, they've quickly condemned it."

There isn't much we can do about this, but it's still appalling and worth highlighting. In any case, good for the Brits.

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

RUDY UPDATE....Michael Cooper of the New York Times rounds up a few of Rudy Giuliani's recent campaign trail whoppers and writes:

All of these statements are incomplete, exaggerated or just plain wrong.

Rudy's official response appears to be that he's only lying a little bit, not a lot, and anyway, everyone knows in their hearts that he's really right. Or something. In any case, I count eight separate whoppers debunked in the article. Go read.

Elsewhere in Rudy-land, Josh Marshall is keeping close tabs on the creative accounting that Rudy used in the waning days of his mayoralty to hide expenses for his trips to the Hamptons to meet up with his mistress:

Rudy's defense in all this has been that there's nothing wrong here because this Enron accounting he was using in the mayor's office wasn't specifically to conceal the Shag Fund. And we're getting the sense that he's right. At least in part.

It seems more likely in his final years and months as mayor Rudy was living larger and larger on the NYC dime. And a look at the book-keeping details that are emerging suggests a very conscious effort to use these squirrelly accounting techniques to hide Rudy's high-living ways from public scrutiny. Some of it was Shag Fund spending, but not all, probably not even most.

The problem is that even though the accounting techniques were part of a general effort to hide Rudy's living the high-life on the city's dime, it's now shined a bright light on the Shag Fund. And the Shag Fund was evidently spread more widely than the stuff accounted for with the squirrelly book-keeping.

Josh also notes that Rudy's current explanation for all this, namely that this creative accounting was actually a big-hearted attempt to reimburse cops for their expenses more quickly, is pretty weak stuff. The idea that the NYPD might be slow in cutting checks for expense reports is easy to believe, but do security detail cops really have to rent their own cars, instead of using city cars? And if it was really all above board, why scatter the expenses into half a dozen weird little agencies? And why refuse to explain it when the comptroller started asking questions? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE EDWARDS MANDATE REVISITED....Writing from the land of tulips and universal healthcare, Ezra Klein says I'm giving short shrift to the political merits of individual mandate healthcare plans (i.e., the kind of plans currently on the table from John Edwards and Hillary Clinton). But I think he missed the point of my criticism (here) of Edwards' plan for enforcing enrollment in his version of IM.

As it happens, I really do think individual mandate plans are dumb on pure policy grounds. But I also realize that my preferred alternative is a political loser and that IM is (possibly) a political winner. So I'm for it. But that's exactly why Edwards' Diogenes-like effort to define his enforcement mechanism for IM in such mind-numbing detail is a bad idea: it practically forces voters to confront the fact that IM doesn't really make much sense. If you're really that dead serious about forcing everyone to get coverage, why the Rube Goldberg mechanism? Why not just tax everyone and sign 'em up for Medicare?

This is, frankly, something you want to keep a little blurry, not something you want to sharpen, and a smart politician understands this. Ezra is right when he says that IM "basically trades away certain amount of economic efficiency in order to evade the political implications of nationalizing health spending." That being the case, it's politically wise to keep things fuzzy at this point — especially since enforcement is a detail that has no chance of surviving the political process intact anyway, and accomplishes nothing except providing your opponents with an opening for demagogic attacks. Right?

UPDATE: Nicholas Beaudrot points out that all the healthcare plans on the table (including Edwards') provide various subsidies and tax credits for poor people, and that in any case, everyone has a political incentive to make sure that the middle class doesn't pay too much for healthcare. "Thus, in practice, the number of people who would actually see their wages garnished or get taken to collections would be relatively low."

Exactly. And I'm sure that Republicans all realize this and will therefore refrain from using it as an unprincipled way of panicking Harry and Louise about jackbooted IRS thugs raiding accounting departments across the country and demanding that H&L's wages be garnished. So I guess no harm has been done after all.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

SIZING UP THE SURGE....The LA Times reports on the difficulty of getting accurate civilian fatality figures in Iraq:

Iraqi officials have been reporting far higher civilian death totals than those reported by U.S. forces, and aides to American commanders now acknowledge that the U.S. military probably had been undercounting such casualties.

....The conflicting figures frequently arise from incidents in which the U.S. asserts it has killed insurgents whereas Iraqi officials and witnesses say civilians died.

....American officers say that trends in both U.S. and "host nation" reporting show that violence has decreased substantially over the last four months. "The trends are the same; the magnitude is different," said Army Col. Bill Rapp, head of Petreaus' small in-house group of advisors. "He reports both, and our guess is truth is in between that range."

The "magnitude" is different. Hmmm. The Times also reports that U.S. commanders think the Iraqis intentionally lowball civilian fatalities in areas where they've taken over the lead from American troops. They do this to make their own security forces look better, which, ironically, is exactly the same thing that various independent monitoring groups have accused Petraeus of doing to make the U.S. surge look good in areas where we've taken over.

Denying that the surge is working is apparently the latest Great Lefty Sin™, and God knows I don't want to do that. I'm still waiting for political progress. Still, a year from now it will be interesting to find out just what the consensus is on how much violence really did decrease during the second half of 2007. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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MELTDOWN DOWN UNDER....As you all know, Labor won last week's election in Australia, primarily on promises to ratify Kyoto and pull out of Iraq. But it turns out the Liberal (i.e., pro-business right) Party didn't just go down to defeat. "Instead," writes John Quiggin, "there has been a meltdown of spectacular proportions on the losing side." More about the happy news here. With any luck, perhaps we can hope for the same performance next year from our own pro-business right party?

Kevin Drum 11:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THE EDWARDS MANDATE....Both John Edwards and Hillary Clinton include "individual mandates" in their healthcare plans that require everyone in the country to sign up for coverage. But what if you refuse to sign up anyway? Today, John Edwards explained how his plan would deal with that:

Under the Edwards plan, when Americans file their income taxes, they would be required to submit a letter from an insurance provider confirming coverage for themselves and their dependents.

If someone did not submit proof of coverage, the Internal Revenue Service would notify a newly established regional or state-based health-care agency [which] would enroll the individual into the lowest cost health-care plan available in that area....The newly covered individual would not only have access to health benefits but would also be responsible for making monthly payments with the help of a tax credit.

....If a person did not meet his or her monthly financial obligation for a set period of time (perhaps a year, perhaps longer) the Edwards plan would empower the federal government to garnish an individual's wages for purposes of collecting "back premiums with interest and collection costs."

Paul Krugman calls this a "terrific idea," but I'm not so sure. There are at least two big problems here — and probably three.

First, do we really want the IRS enforcing healthcare mandates? That's not what the IRS is for, and Americans are (rightly) suspicious of using the IRS as a quasi-police agency to enforce whatever federal law the current administration feels like using it for. This is probably not a constructive road to go down.

Second, a Rube Goldberg enforcement program like does nothing except highlight the absurdity of individual mandate healthcare plans in the first place. If you're really this serious about getting every man, woman, and child in the country enrolled, why go through all this? Why not just do it like Medicare, where the funding mechanism is the existing tax system and everyone is enrolled automatically? It amounts to the same thing and it's cheaper, easier, and less intrusive.

Third, this is a political loser. Do we really want to treat people who don't sign up for healthcare like deadbeat dads and Chapter 11 refugees by garnishing their wages? Unless I'm way off base, this is just not going to go over well. Republicans will have a field day with it.

Sometimes you can offer too much detail in a campaign, and this is one of those times. No healthcare plan will survive the election in anything close to its campaign form, so why bother offering up a detailed enforcement mechanism that's never going to see the light of day anyway? Politically it's an albatross and substantively it's meaningless. It's just a mistake all around.

Kevin Drum 2:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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November 29, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SY'S SECRETS....Matt Taibbi reveals Seymour Hersh's reporting secrets:

He's old school. He's the kind of guy who sits and pores over the newsletters of all these minor government agencies to see who retired that week so he can approach that person to see if he's got any stories to tell on his way out of service. There are a few guys like that who are still out there, but they're all holdovers from a lost age.

Old school indeed.

Kevin Drum 10:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REPUBLICAN BASE....Last night Joe Klein sat in on one of Frank Luntz's focus group sessions for the Republican debate. It was one of those deals where each participant got a "dial" that allowed them to register instant approval or disapproval of what each candidate said. Klein's report:

In the next segment — the debate between Romney and Mike Huckabee over Huckabee's college scholarships for the deserving children of illegal immigrants — I noticed something really distressing: When Huckabee said, "After all, these are children of God," the dials plummeted. And that happened time and again through the evening: Any time any candidate proposed doing anything nice for anyone poor, the dials plummeted (30s).

The other big loser: John McCain saying we shouldn't torture people. In fact, it was an even bigger loser. It turns out that the only thing these GOP voters hated more than helping the poor was being told that it's wrong to torture people.

Ladies and gentlemen, your Republican base.

Kevin Drum 10:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (138)

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By: Kevin Drum

SHAGADELIC!....I sort of buried the big Rudy/Judi story in the middle of my debate blogging last night, and that's just not right. It deserves a post of its own.

So just in case you missed it, The Politico reported yesterday that back in 1999-2000, when Rudy was carrying on an affair with Judith Nathan (later Mrs. Rudy #3), he tried to hide what was going on by charging the expenses of his security detail to obscure city agencies:

The expenses first surfaced as Giuliani's two terms as mayor of New York drew to a close in 2001, when a city auditor stumbled across something unusual: $34,000 worth of travel expenses buried in the accounts of the New York City Loft Board.

When the city's fiscal monitor asked for an explanation, Giuliani's aides refused, citing "security," said Jeff Simmons, a spokesman for the city comptroller.

But American Express bills and travel documents obtained by Politico suggest another reason City Hall may have considered the documents sensitive: They detail three summers of visits to Southampton, the Long Island town where Nathan had an apartment.

....Broadening the inquiry, the comptroller wrote, auditors found similar expenses at a range of other unlikely agencies: $10,054 billed to the Office for People With Disabilities and $29,757 to the Procurement Policy Board.

The next year, yet another obscure department, the Assigned Counsel Administrative Office, was billed around $400,000 for travel.

Rudy's explanation for these odd billing practices? Three so far: (a) it's just a "hit job," (b) it's the police department's fault, and (c) why, this is just standard operating procedure.

Well, standard operating procedure at Enron, maybe, but probably not for the city of New York. But there's more. While this was all still percolating, ABC News reported this afternoon that Judi had been getting some additional special treatment:

Well before it was publicly known he was seeing her, then-married New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani provided a police driver and city car for his mistress Judith Nathan, former senior city officials tell the Blotter on ABCNews.com.

"She used the PD as her personal taxi service," said one former city official who worked for Giuliani.

Former mayor Ed Koch was not amused: "That was bizarre. She's not the city's responsibility. Rudy is the city's responsibility. Your wife and his children get protection, and that's understood. But certainly not your lady friend."

And just to jog your memories, remember that this comes on top of all those rumors that Rudy bucked his advisors and insisted on putting his emergency command post in the World Trade Center so that it would be within walking distance of City Hall, and therefore convenient for in-city trysts with Judi. That turned out not to be such a great idea, but what can you do? Love makes fools of us all.

And, hell, as long as we're piling on Rudy, ABC also reported today that for the past two years Giuliani Security & Safety has been providing security consulting and advice to the Qatar Interior Ministry, "which is currently run by a member of the royal family who has long been accused of supporting al Qaeda, according to security consultants familiar with the area."

If you want to keep up, TPM (natch) is flooding the zone on all things Rudy. Head over there for the latest.

Kevin Drum 7:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PUBLIC RECORD....Aroused by Daniel Davies' and Jon Chait's recent tongue lashings of the right, Tyler Cowen throws out an idea:

I'd like to propose a new research convention. Anytime a writer or blogger talks about what The Right or The Left (or some subset thereof) really wants or means, I'd like them to list their personal anthropological experience with the subjects under consideration. Davies presents [Milton] Friedman as a shill for the Republican Party; I'd like to know how many (public or non-public) conversations he has had with Friedman about the topic of the Republican Party.

....How many supply-siders has Chait talked to? It might be a lot, but again I'd like to know. Has he met with the people who write The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page? How many of them? How many leading Republican donors and strategists does he know? Did they really chat with him, or were they in controlled "interview mode"? How motivated are they by supply-side doctrine? What did those say who weren't so motivated?

How many intelligent pro-life Republicans do you know? How many southern racist Republicans do you know? Have they confided in you? Do they trust you? Do you really think you know what they believe?

Actually, this kind of amateur anthropology goes on all the time, and it obviously has its uses. But it also has its drawbacks: the conventions of social interaction allow people to obfuscate, prevaricate, evade, and just generally lay on the charm in ways that frequently blur distinctions instead of sharpening them. And human beings being the social primates that we are, we often give views that we hear in person more weight than they deserve simply because we heard them in person.

So I disagree: When it comes to important issues of public policy this kind of personal interaction should be secondary. For the most part, we shouldn't judge people by what they say in private or how they act around their kids. We shouldn't judge presidential candidates by how sociable they are on the press plane or whether they'd make a good drinking buddy. That's how we ended up with George Bush. We should judge them mostly by their public record: their speeches, their actions, their roll call votes, and their funding priorities. Anthropological research, aka hanging out and having a few beers, is fun and interesting, but it's not necessarily a superior guide to what someone really thinks or what they'll really do when the crunch comes.

As a political blogger, I often wonder if I'd be better off if I lived in Washington DC. There are obvious upsides: DC is full of interesting conferences, has scads of subject matter experts, and is home to lots of social gatherings where I could catch up on the latest gossip, discuss issues in more depth than I can via email, and take the measure of people in person instead of only in print. This kind of thing is great blog fodder. I'll bet that lunch with Tyler and his GMU confederates would be both instructive and entertaining, for example.

But there's an upside to being a continent away, too: I don't hear any of the gossip, so it doesn't affect what I think or write. Everyone's on the same print-based plane. And I don't have any close relationships, so I can pretty much say whatever I feel without worrying that I'm going to lose a friendship over it. (I worry about that sometimes, of course — I'm a human being, not a cyborg — but certainly less than if I had regular social contact with the people I write about.) Overall, even with the downsides factored in, I'll bet that my analytical track record is better because I keep my distance and avoid being spun, not worse.

But of course, there's no way to know for sure. Maybe someday Marian and the cats and I will move to DC, and after a few years you can all decide whether my blogging is better or worse for it. But no time soon, I'm afraid.

Kevin Drum 2:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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THE GOP'S FOREIGN POLICY....Moira Whelan notes that none of the Republican candidates in Wednesday's debate so much as mentioned the word "Annapolis":

Not only that, these guys were allowed to skate by with only sweeping assertions about "radical Islam" and the like. Not a single candidate was asked to address in detail what they would do to address the challenges we face...except to say that we should face them. No policy proposals, no tough ideas, just rhetoric.

That's because the Republican Party doesn't have a foreign policy anymore. For some reason, CNN chose to air only two questions directly related to foreign policy last night, which may seem irresponsible at first glance but actually turned out to be a sign of prescient good judgment on their part. After all, the first question produced nothing but bluster from Rudy Guiliani ("The most important thing to do is to make certain that we remain on offense against Islamic terrorism"), some followup bluster from John McCain ("If we'd done what the Democrats said to do six months ago, al-Qaeda would be telling the world they beat America"), and then some up-the-ante bluster from Duncan Hunter ("I will never apologize for the United States of America").

The second question produced — surprise! — some bluster from Fred Thompson ("Islamic terrorism has declared war on us in Western civilization"), more bluster from McCain ("This is a transcendent challenge of our time"), and yet more bluster from Tom Tancredo ("We are living in a world where we are threatened"). Ron Paul tried to break the mold, but only got booed for his efforts.

Nickel summary: Stay on the offense, never surrender, and never apologize, because Western civilization is under threat from the transcendent challenge of our time. See how easy it is? I've just written an entire section of the 2008 Republican platform for them. No need to thank me, though. I'm doing it for the children.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE DOG THAT DIDN'T BARK....Fred Kaplan suggests that the real purpose behind Tuesday's Mideast peace talks in Annapolis wasn't really Mideast peace at all:

The fact that Syria attended may mean something larger still. As David Brooks noted a few weeks ago in a very intriguing New York Times column (which, I'm told by someone else, was inspired by a briefing from Rice aboard her plane), the main goal of the then-impending Annapolis conference would be not so much the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty as the forging of an anti-Iran alliance. "Flipping" the Syrians — offering them an incentive to break away from Iran — would go a long way toward that goal. As NPR's Deborah Amos has observed, Syria's attendance might mark a step toward this flip.

Steven Erlanger reported yesterday that it's not just the United States that has this goal in mind:

"The Arabs have come here not because they love the Jews or even the Palestinians," said an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They came because they need a strategic alliance with the United States against Iran."

....Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, put it this way: "This is the summit of our hope and their fear. It's our hope that at long last the Arab world will understand that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not the core and can be solved, and their fear of Islamic extremism and Iran, which they call the Persian threat. This is what brought them here."

All roads lead to Tehran.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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KEEPING UP WITH THE VA....The Department of Veterans Affairs, already under pressure before the Iraq war, is struggling to keep up with demand for disability claims. The waiting time to process new claims is now six months and rising.

Blue Girl's solution: provisionally approve all claims by default (90% are approved eventually) and then cut them off only if they're later disapproved. Bonus feature: this might give the VA an incentive to speed up its claim processing. It's worth a thought.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DEMOCRATS IN THE MIST....In the right-wing blogosphere, the biggest topic of discussion about last night's Republican debate is the fact that some of the questioners were Democrats. In particular, retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr, who asked about gays in the military, turned out to be a Kerry and Clinton supporter.

Personally, I think Republicans have bigger things to worry about than that. But if you're interested, James Joyner has a good roundup.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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AN EXTRA PENNY....Tom Tancredo last night:

I reject the idea categorically that there are jobs that, quote, "no American will take." I reject it....Am I going to feel sorry if a business has to increase its wages in order for somebody in this country to make a good living? No, I don't feel sorry about that, and I won't apologize for it for a moment.

Eric Schlosser, today, on the penny-per-pound raise that Florida tomato pickers got in 2005:

Burger King, whose headquarters are in Florida, has adamantly refused to pay the extra penny — and its refusal has encouraged tomato growers to cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald's.

This month the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing 90 percent of the state's growers, announced that it will not allow any of its members to collect the extra penny for farm workers. Reggie Brown, the executive vice president of the group, described the surcharge for poor migrants as "pretty much near un-American."

Welcome to the real world, Rep. Tancredo. Your move.

Kevin Drum 1:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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THE WACKO PARADE....The Weekly Standard's blog comments on the questioners at Wednesday's Republican debate:

So, a good night for for the lowest denominator, a bad night for the GOP. America got to see a vaguely threatening parade of gun fetishists, flat worlders, Mars Explorers, Confederate flag lovers and zombie-eyed-Bible-wavers as well as various one issue activists hammering their pet causes.

Funny! But wait. NRO publishes an email from a reader:

I was absolutely disgusted with what I saw tonight from CNN. Thousands of people submitted questions for this debate; yet, the questions they chose only served to reinforce the stereotype that the average Republican voter is a confederate-flag-waving, gun-toting, bible-brandishing conspiracy theorist! There were staggeringly few questions on National Security, and the few that were asked include some of the substanceless "gotcha" questions which were designed for no other purpose than to induce gaffes.

Is the second guy right? Did CNN load up the debate with wackos? Or is he in denial about the real face of the contemporary GOP?

You'll be unsurprised to learn that I vote for option B. If you get questions from tub thumpers, gun nuts, and tax zealots, then you air questions from tub thumpers, gun nuts, and tax zealots. But I'm biased. So I guess I'll leave it up to the wingers to fight this one out with CNN.

Kevin Drum 12:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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November 28, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GOP DEBATE WRAPUP....I got nuthin'. What do I know about which Republican pandered best to the Republican base?

But here's my offhand reaction: Giuliani did pretty well. His attack on Romney in the first few minutes was over the top, but aside from immigration his answers were crisp and he didn't make any big mistakes. Thompson rambled. McCain was pretty good, though his answers could have been sharper. Romney was even more weaselly than usual. Huckabee was very good — though he benefited from not being much of a punching bag. Except for the Thompson attack ad, none of the other candidates really took any shots at him.

Kevin Drum 10:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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THE GOP DEBATE....8:32 — Ron Paul apparently believes the NAFTA superhighway urban legend is for real. Oof.

8:35 — Giuliani's once again proposing that we cut the federal workforce by 20%. Somebody really ought to press him for a few more details on that one of these days.

8:41 — McCain's going after Ron Paul?

8:43: Hmm. Not quite 100% pandering to Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge. Is Grover over?

8:47 — Ah. Anderson Cooper breaks in to ask Rudy Giuliani about today's Politico story saying that in 1999-2000 Giuliani expensed security detail charges to obscure city agencies in order to hide the fact that he was carrying on an affair with Judith Nathan (now his wife). Giuliani, in an uncharacteristically brief answer, says there's nothing to it.

(In case you don't feel like clicking the link, the Politico story found evidence of $34,000 worth of travel expenses buried in the accounts of — get this — the New York City Loft Board. Giuliani's aides refused to explain the expenses on grounds of security, "But American Express bills and travel documents obtained by Politico suggest another reason City Hall may have considered the documents sensitive: They detail three summers of visits to Southampton, the Long Island town where Nathan had an apartment.")

9:04 — McCain and Giuliani don't own a gun? What the hell kind of effete pussies are they?

9:16 — "Do you believe this book? This specific book. Do you believe this book?" That guy was kind of creepy, wasn't he? ("This book" = The Bible)

9:28 — Is waterboarding torture? Romney: "As a presidential candidate it would not be wise to say which techniques we would and would not use." Spare me. What a weasel.

9:33 — Wow. A question from someone who apparently thinks the Republican Party candidates are insufficiently warmongerish. Iraq forever!

9:35 — McCain: We coulda won in Vietnam!

9:48 — Duncan Hunter says we shouldn't allow gays in the military because most soldiers are conservatives. Um, OK.

Total weaselling from Romney on this question. He favored gays in the military in 1994, but he doesn't now because we're at war. Uh huh. As for the future, well, he's got no opinion at all. He'll just rely on the advice of his military advisors. Sheesh.

9:57 — Huckabee on the space program: "I've got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary could be on the first rocket to Mars." Whoosh. Where did that come from? What a lame attempt at a zinger.

10:01 — Romney's opposed to displaying the Confederate flag. He actually took a stand on something that might conceivably offend a Republican voter bloc!

10:06 — McCain: No more pork if I'm president. Bold stand, Senator.

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ME AND WALL STREET....I will never understand Wall Street. Here's the latest:

Fed Official's Remarks Send Stocks Soaring

Stocks soared on Wall Street today after a top Federal Reserve official appeared to open the door for additional interest rate cuts....In his speech this morning, delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, [Fed vice chairman Donald] Kohn pledged that the Fed "will act as needed" to address the volatility of the current economic situation.

"Uncertainties about the economic outlook are unusually high right now," he said. "In my view, these uncertainties require flexible and pragmatic policy making."

Now see, if it were me I'd be running for the hills at this news. Sure, Kohn was signalling that the Fed might cut interest rates, but he was only doing that because he thinks there's a danger that the economy might be tanking. So here's the difference:

Kevin: Economy tanking = bad. An interest rate cut is nice, but it doesn't nearly make up for a bad economy. I'm going to go hide in a cave.

Wall Street: Interest rate cut = good. Who cares if the economy is souring? Let's party!

Yes, sure, lower interest rates make stocks a relatively better investment than bonds, and that's good news for Wall Street. But the effect is small, and the stimulative effect of an interest rate reduction is both small and far in the future. A declining economy, by contrast, is bad news right now, and the vice chairman of the Fed just warned us that he was afraid the economy might indeed be declining.

And the market goes up 300 points. I don't get it.

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FOLLOW THE MONEY....You just know that any letter that starts out by describing DC trade associations as playing "an invaluable role in building policy consensus, informing the legislative process, and advancing the democratic ideals of citizen participation and responsive government" has got to be good. And it is! Turns out it's the lobbying industry's latest attempt to evade new legislation that forces them to disclose just who their big moneymen are. They really, really don't want you to know. More here.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....Chris Hayes on the almost insane level of candidate deconstruction practiced by the modern media:

Myself, I'm currently working on two stories, one about a crucial little league team defeat John Edwards suffered in 4th grade that taught him hard lessons about resilience and competition and 5,000-word profile of an advertising exec from Duluth who roomed with Mitt Romney at Harvard for a week while his own dorm was under construction.

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GOVERNMENT BY TEMPER TANTRUM....Pardon me for yet another rant about Arnold Schwarzenegger and the budget travails of my home state:

Next year's state budget, with no changes to current programs or revenues, will be $10 billion in the red, and similar shortfalls are projected for the following years.

....When the state budget has taken a turn for the worse in the past, some legislators resisted common-sense solutions to increase revenue alongside prudent cuts....And we end up with bad quick-fixes. The perfect example is the $15-billion bond issued in 2004 to cover the last major budget shortfall. Repayment on that debt now costs the budget $3 billion a year.

Democrats deserve blame for mismanaging California's budget in the early 00s, but it's hard to overstate just how irresponsible and infantile Schwarzenegger and California Republicans have been since then. In 2003, in the middle of an existing budget crisis, Schwarzenegger ran a demagogic and pandering campaign based on cutting California taxes by $4 billion. Then, to fix the shortfall this caused, he supported the 2004 bond measure. The net cost to the state of this GOP flight to fantasy now adds up to $7 billion per year.

If it weren't for Schwarzenegger and his fellow GOP tax fanatics, next year's projected shortfall would be $3 billion — or possibly even less. That would have been manageable. Instead we careen from crisis to crisis thanks to the government-by-temper-tantrum practiced by modern California Republicans. Thanks a lot, guys.

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THE JAY GATSBY OF IRAQ....Alan Weisman writes in the LA Times today about Richard Perle and Ahmed Chalabi:

Perle, of course, was the most prominent and aggressive advocate of Chalabi, dubbed the "Jay Gatsby of Iraq" for his social life and financial scandals, as the leader of a new Iraq.

"The Jay Gatsby of Iraq" fits Chalabi nicely, though, unfortunately, it's a little bit of stretch to say that Chalabi has been "dubbed" this. As near as I can tell, George Packer quoted Noah Feldman calling Chalabi the ''Jay Gatsby of the Iraq War" in The Assassins' Gate, H.D.S. Greenway repeated it in a late 2005 piece for the Boston Globe, and Weisman is the first one to mention it since. I guess maybe now I'm the fourth. But it deserves wider exposure, no?

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HILLARY'S OPERATION....From Chris Cillizza:

To date, Obama has 19 offices in 13 states where Feb. 5 primaries are scheduled, including the campaign's newest satellite office in Fargo, North Dakota....Clinton, by contrast, has five total offices currently open in Feb. 5 states — two in California, and one each in New Jersey, New York and Arkansas.

Cillizza bills this as evidence that Obama thinks the primary season will still be in full swing after January, which is fair enough, but it's the flip side that surprises me the most: Hillary only has five offices up and running so far in the Feb. 5 states? Why? She has plenty of money, she has a top notch campaign operation, ten weeks isn't very long for regional offices to get fully staffed and functional, and she can't possibly believe with any confidence that the whole thing is going to be over by the end of January. So why wait so long to begin serious local organizing?

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PAKISTAN NEWS....Pervez Musharraf has stepped down as head of the Pakistani army. Now he's merely a civilian dictator.

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ARBITRATION AND YOU....Over at Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer writes about the increasing number of businesses that won't do business with you unless you sign away your right to a trial in case of dispute. In fact, there are now entire industries that refuse to deal with anyone who won't agree in advance that all disputes be resolved by a private arbitration firm:

All of this is especially nefarious given that the vast majority of consumers who attempt to seek justice in mandatory arbitration lose. The nonprofit consumer group Public Citizen recently analyzed data the NAF provided to the state of California, one of the few states that actually requires arbitration firms to disclose information about their results. Public Citizen found that in 94 percent of 19,000 cases, NAF arbitrators ruled in favor of the businesses that hired them.

....One reason businesses often come out on top in arbitration is that arbitrators who rule for consumers have a tendency to find themselves out of work. Such was the case with Richard Neely, a former chief justice of West Virginia's Supreme Court, who worked briefly as an arbitrator for the NAF. In an article called "Arbitration and the Godless Bloodsuckers," Neely reported that he had refused to award a bank arbitration-related fees that he judged to be far in excess of what a court would have charged. He never got another case. Neely is not alone. A 2000 study of forced arbitration in HMO contracts found that on the rare occasion that an arbitrator made a significant award for a patient, the HMO never hired that person to arbitrate a case again.

Fun fact: when car manufacturers tried to insist on arbitration clauses in their contracts with car dealers, the dealers fought back furiously, saying that it would allow big corporations to "unilaterally deny small business automobile and truck dealers rights under state laws that are designed to bring equity to the relationship between manufacturers and dealers." The dealers lobbied Congress to prohibit this and Congress agreed.

But guess which industry is one of the worst abusers of arbitration clauses when it comes to selling their product to consumers? Yep. Auto dealers. Read the whole thing.

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SOCIAL SECURITY AGAIN....Why are Ruth Marcus and the Washington Post so obsessed with demanding that we all address Social Security's long-term problems right this instant? It's a mystery. Truly a mystery.

Here's what they need to think about. The most common solutions to Social Security's eventual shortfall are (a) a small tax increase, (b) a small reduction in the rate of growth of benefits, and (c) a small increase in the retirement age. Question: are there any advantages to implementing any of these solutions right now, rather than, say, ten years from now?

I'd say no. The advantage to waiting is obvious: projections of Social Security's solvency are uncertain, and waiting gives us more data. Why try to project 40 years in the future if you don't have to? Better to wait and see what direction the economy actually heads.

Balanced against that, there really aren't any advantages to acting sooner. Social Security is currently running a surplus, so increasing payroll taxes today does nothing except increase the size of the trust fund — a meaningless exercise at best, and a positively harmful one at worst. We might need to raise taxes in the future once Social Security starts running a deficit, but raising them now does nothing at all to change either Social Security's future obligations or the source of its future funding.

As for ideas (b) and (c), what's the point of locking ourselves into them now? If we wait ten years, not only will we know more about the real shape of the future funding problem, but we'll still have 25 years or more to gradually introduce any changes we think we need. Do we really need to give beneficiaries more than 25 years notice that they might have to retire one year later than they think? Or that after they retire their benefits are going to increase at a slightly slower rate than the law currently requires? I don't see the point. 25 years is plenty of warning for changes as small as the ones we're talking about.

Bottom line: 2017 is a better time to deal with Social Security than 2007. Raising taxes now doesn't accomplish anything, and if it turns out that we need to reduce benefits we can do it in 2017 just as well as we can do it today. For now, we should put Social Security on the back burner and instead spend time worrying about healthcare costs, nuclear proliferation, and global warming. Those are problems that really do need to be addressed right away.

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November 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HUCKABEE AND THE MONEY-CONS....Matt Yglesias notes that Christian conservative darling Mike Huckabee is gaining on Mitt Romney in Iowa:

In retrospect, it all sort of makes you wonder why social conservatives didn't just get behind Huckabee in the first place, rather than blessing Romney's preposterous conversion to religious right values and trying to drag Fred Thompson into the race. Sure, Huckabee's not well-liked by the economic hard-right, but cultural conservatives' objections to Giuliani didn't stop his backers from pushing him on the party.

Part of the answer, of course, is the obvious one: it's hard for an also-ran candidate to gain support no matter what views he does or doesn't have. After all, few people want to waste time, money, or emotional energy on a candidate who doesn't seem to have any chance of winning.

But there's something else going on here too. Christian conservatives are obviously a substantial interest group within the Republican Party, but as Jon Chait pointed out in The Big Con, that's all they are: a substantial interest group. The real bosses of the party are found among the tax jihadists and corporate interest groups who make up its economic wing. Or, as my editor headlined my review of Chait's book, "Forget neocons and theocons. It's the money-cons who really run Bush's Republican Party."

What's more, I think the Christian Right knows this. Like it or not, they know that a socially conservative candidate without money-con backing has no chance of winning the nomination, while the opposite isn't true. At a level that's almost unconscious, then, they preemptively gave up on Huckabee before the race even started. With the Club for Growth and the Wall Street Journal editorial page against him, they knew Huckabee didn't stand a chance.

Huckabee's problem is that in the end, in today's GOP, hating unions is more important than hating gays, and eliminating the estate tax is more important than eliminating abortion. Howard Beale would understand.

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SCIENCE AT THE TIMES....Calling C.P. Snow:

Scott Eric Kaufman draws my attention to the fact that the New York Times has posted its Notable Books for 2007 list. The list is divided into "Fiction & Poetry" and "Non-Fiction," and Scott correctly notes that the "Fiction & Poetry" books all have terrible blurbs, but I'd like to point out a much larger problem with the list, relating to the "Non-Fiction" category:

There is not a single science book on the list of "Notable Books" for the year.

There are books on history, books on politics, personal memoirs, collections of critical essays, but nothing about science. There are biographies galore, but no biographies of scientists.

Bending over backward to be fair, I'll note that there's a book on the list about the fight against AIDS in Africa, which includes a shard or two of science. Basically, though, the entire list consists of history, memoir, cultural criticism, and (non-science) biography. Quite an eclectic taste those Times book reviewers have, eh?

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HOT AIR....Last night David Appell emailed to draw my attention to a post in which he calculated that the IPCC Conference on Climate Change in Bali will produce 26 million metric tons of CO2. "I'll start thinking global warming is a crisis when the people telling me it's a crisis act like it's a crisis," he concluded.

I was uninterested in this sophistry, but Glenn Reynolds (natch) decided to pick up on it, the third or fourth time he's done so just for this one conference. "They're certainly not acting like global warming is a crisis," he agreed — though with a caveat that Apell's arithmetic was off by three orders of magnitude. It's .026 million metric tons, not 26 million.

But who cares? This is just an example of the current craze in global warming denialism: don't literally deny that warming is happening (the actual facts make that too hard), merely mock every possible effort to fight it. International agreements? Obviously ridiculous. Federal regulation? Just an excuse for more anti-business spleen from the Birkenstock crowd. Carbon taxes? You'd like that, wouldn't you? Government spending on amelioration? Forget it. We should spend the money on, um, clean drinking water for Chad instead. Yeah. Private efforts to inspire conservation? Just a bunch of hectoring, self-righteous Hollywood elites. Al Gore? He doesn't live in a cave, so he's a hypocrite.

So that's that. Sure, global warming is real, but we shouldn't fight it with international efforts, federal efforts, local efforts, personal efforts, higher taxes, or additional spending. And if you support any of that stuff but still drive a car or use electricity yourself, then who the hell are you to pretend you're better than the rest of us?

Alternatively, we could all cut the smarmy posturing (mirrors in space!) and actually do something. Unfortunately, merely typing these words and posting them has produced CO2, so there's no reason to listen to me, is there? I'm just another liberal hypocrite.

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'ROOTS AND RIBS....YearlyKos has changed its name to Netroots Nation and, more importantly, will be held next year in Austin, Texas. I think maybe I'll rouse myself to actually attend this time instead of inventing some feeble excuse to stay home. After all, in addition to the convention itself being a show worth attending, Austin is only a half hour drive from Lockhart, the barbecue capital of Texas (and, therefore, they would say, the world). That's enough to tip me over the edge.

Next step: finding a congenial set of fellow NNers who are willing to blow off the midday sessions and drive to Lockhart for lunch each day. Plenty of time for that, though: the convention runs July 17-20. Early bird registration is here.

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WHY WAIT FOR ACTUAL RESULTS?....Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. In the LA Times today, hawk's hawk Zev Chafets writes that today's Annapolis peace conference is a resounding vote of confidence in George Bush:

This is Bush's bash. His name is on the invitation. The party is at his place. The guests are strictly A-list. Every country that matters, and a lot that don't, will be represented. The European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League will be there too. They are all coming for the same reason: They have been summoned by the one man in the world to whom no one wants to say no.

It turns out that Bush, far from wrecking America's prestige and influence, has compounded it....Despite the assurances of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. has not been humiliated in Mesopotamia. On the contrary, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent determination of the American occupation have concentrated the minds of the (ever fewer) anti-American Arab despots.

Did you get that? Bush has compounded American prestige and influence, and the evidence is the mere fact that people are willing to show up at Annapolis. The last time I saw someone set a bar that low I was surrounded by a crowd of tipsy revelers while Chubby Checker blared "Limbo Rock" in the background.

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HOUSING BUBBLE UPDATE....Last year I speculated that when the housing bubble burst, prices would decline by 10-20%, with the high end of that range being more likely than the low end. Aside from fellow bubble pessimists, most people at the time thought that seemed pretty ridiculous. But here's what the LA Times says today:

No one knows how severe the slump will be, but economists and real estate experts interviewed by The Times, and who were willing to make predictions, said prices could fall 15% to 25% before turning back up.

Most said values would continue falling through at least next year, and some thought the market wouldn't reverse course until 2010.

....Leamer and Thornberg are among the most bearish of analysts, saying the recently ended housing boom pushed prices out of sync with incomes...."Southern California prices will fall 25% from their peak and won't find their bottom until the end of 2009," Thornberg said. Leamer also sees a drop-off at the high end of the range — 20% to 25% — and sees the downturn lasting into 2010.

Yuck, yuck, yuck. This is really not going to be pretty.

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November 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WORRYING ABOUT WARMING....Cosma Shalizi explains better than I could myself why I've long felt that global warming might be even worse than we think. Nickel summary: I have a bad feeling that f might turn out to be a little bit higher than we think.

But I hope I'm wrong.

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MITT AND THE MUSLIMS....Via Democracy Arsenal, here's what Mitt Romney told Mansoor Ijaz recently about the possibility of appointing a Muslim to his cabinet:

I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that "jihadism" is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, "...based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration."

Hmmm. I thought Republicans were the ones opposed to identity politics and quotas? Let's just check their party platform and....let's see....aha, here it is: "Finally, because we are opposed to discrimination, we reject preferences, quotas, and set-asides based on skin color, ethnicity, or gender."

Sorry, my mistake. There's no mention of religious discrimination there, so I guess Mitt's on solid ground. Quotas for Muslims are OK.

What's really telling about this is that you can almost see the gears turning in his brain when he came up with this answer. Obviously he had to say "no," because he knows that the Republican base would go nuts over the idea of a Muslim in his cabinet. But he can't just say that, can he? So his Bain-trained analytic mind went searching for a plausible excuse and the first thing that popped out of the wetware was a numerical explanation: (a) minorities deserve cabinet positions in proportion to their population, (b) one cabinet position is 5% of all cabinet positions, (c) therefore only groups with at least 15 million members are "justified" in getting one, (d) Muslims aren't even close to that, so (e) no dice. However, since they do make up about 2% of the population, they certainly qualify for 2% of all the lower level positions.

Any Tammany Hall ward heeler would understand the logic, but even Silent Charlie understood that this kind of thing wouldn't fly at the presidential level, and that was nearly a century ago. Maybe Mitt should have stayed quiet too.

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MINISTRIES....Ramesh Ponnuru reports back from a journalists' lunch hosted by John McCain:

McCain notes that corruption and the lack of political progress are continuing problems. "Whoever designed that government ought to be taken out and shot," he said, referring to the large number of Iraqi ministries.

McCain is upset because Iraq has too many ministries? That's very deckchairish on the Titanic of him, isn't it?

Also this: "If there is no political progress over the next three months or so, McCain said, 'some very tough calls would have to be made.'" Does this mean the New York Times will now run a story telling us that Republicans have been changing their tune on Iraq, suddenly emphasizing political progress as a benchmark instead of the level of violence?

In any case, three months from now is February 26. Mark your calendars.

POSTSCRIPT: For what it's worth, Iraq appears to have 31 ministries these days. Just thought I'd clear that up.

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THE SURGE IN BAGHDAD....This is interesting:

U.S. military officials said Saturday that overall American troop levels in Iraq would drop by about 5,000 next month when a combat brigade completed its withdrawal.

The U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, which has been operating primarily in the country's volatile eastern Diyala province, will be the first of five brigades to depart Iraq without being replaced over the next several months, officials confirmed.

....On Tuesday, troops from the Army's 4th Striker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, stationed near Baghdad, will begin to deploy to the region and continue to assist Iraqi forces and residents to secure the province, Smith said.

U.S. officials said the redeployment would not lessen troop levels in Diyala, but it would spread American forces thinner by sending some in Baghdad northeast to the region.

From the start, the surge was primarily aimed at securing Baghdad. A few extra troops were sent to other regions, but the vast majority were sent to Baghdad, where troop concentrations were roughly doubled.

And it worked. In the Sunni provinces surrounding the capital, the decline in violence seems to have been due more to the various Sunni "awakenings" than to the surge. But in Baghdad itself, the surge seems to have genuinely been, if not the only factor, certainly a major component in reducing violence. For that reason, I always figured that when the first drawdown of the surge troops began, Petraeus would do everything he could to keep troop levels high in the capital even at the risk of reducing them elsewhere. But apparently not. Although the initial reduction is technically in Diyala province, the troop levels there won't decrease because they're going to be replaced by troops from Baghdad.

What does this mean? That the success in Diyala is more tenuous than anyone thinks? That the success in Baghdad is more robust than anyone thinks? I'm not sure, but if this is really what it seems then nearly a third of the original Baghdad surge is being redeployed. Stay tuned to see how that works out.

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GOLD PLATED....Andrew Sullivan is worried that Social Security is just too damn generous:

Amity Shlaes does us all a favor by reminding us of the actual purpose of social security: in FDR's words, to provide "some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family." That's it. Not total security. Not a total guarantee that the gold-plated benefits of the late-century will keep growing and growing. And not a peg to wages rather than prices, linking retirees to current wage-earners rather than actual needs.

Gold plated? The average Social Security benefit last year was $12,024. Medicare premiums of $1,454 are automatically deducted, leaving a net benefit of $10,570.

That's $881 per month. There are lots of things you can call that, but "gold plated" isn't one of them.

Oh, and one other thing. The average benefit in 1960 was $981. If benefits had increased since then only at the rate of price inflation, today's benefit would be $6,680. Subtract the Medicare premium and divide by 12 and the monthly benefit works out to $435. I think I'll stick with the current formula.

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THE MORNING LINE....CQ Weekly says Democrats are almost certain to retain control of Congress next year:

And not only that, but they may now harbor realistic visions of emerging with 55 to 58 seats in the Senate (pushing them within arm-twisting distance of the 60 votes needed to bust a filibuster) as well more than 240 seats in the House, a cushion that neither party has enjoyed since the end of the last Democratic era in the House, in 1994.

In fact, it's now dawning on members of both parties that a Democratic sweep — with gains in Congress accompanied by a reclaiming of the White House — is the inescapable "morning line" assumption going into the 2008 campaign season.

The biggest factor working in the Democrats' favor, according to the writers, "continues to be that they are not the Republicans."

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CLIENT STATE UPDATE....Iraq czar Douglas Lute says the United States has begun talking to Iraq about "a set of principles from which to begin formal negotiations" about our long-term presence in Iraq:

Two senior Iraqi officials said Iraqi authorities had discussed the broad outlines of the proposal with U.S. military and diplomatic representatives. The Americans appeared generally favorable subject to negotiations on the details, which include preferential treatment for American investments, according to the Iraqi officials involved in the discussions.

....Preferential treatment for U.S. investors could provide a huge windfall if Iraq can achieve enough stability to exploit its vast oil resources. Such a deal would also enable the United States to maintain leverage against Iranian expansion at a time of growing fears about Tehran's nuclear aspirations.

....The Iraqi officials said that under the proposed formula, Iraq would get full responsibility for internal security and U.S. troops would relocate to bases outside the cities. Iraqi officials foresee a long-term presence of about 50,000 U.S. troops, down from the current figure of more than 160,000.

We appeared to be "generally favorable" to these terms, eh? Knock me over with a bowling ball.

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NO MORE LOTT....Republican whip Trent Lott is resigning:

Lott, 67, grew tired of the political infighting in the Senate as Republicans have been forced into a position of merely blocking a Democratic agenda, the aide said, stressing that the decision was not connected to any health or ethical issues.

I suppose that organizing a dozen filibusters a month could get pretty exhausting after a while, couldn't it?

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November 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESS....Yet more on the "political progress" front:

Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, in the Democratic weekly radio address, acknowledged that [George] Bush's escalation strategy this year had improved security in Iraq. But he said Iraqi political leaders had failed to make "hard choices necessary to bring peace to their country."

"There is no evidence that the Iraqis will choose to do so in the near future or that we have an ability to force that result," said Sanchez, an increasingly vocal critic of what he called Bush administration policy failures in Iraq.

Sanchez is — how to say this delicately? — a wee bit compromised as a spokesman for military strategy in Iraq, but at least he's smart enough to know that political progress is the whole point of our presence there.

You know, what's really remarkable about the whole political reconciliation thing is that no one is even pretending that we're making progress on this score. Hell, even Ryan Crocker isn't very optimistic, and he's paid to be optimistic. Normally, I'd expect that the usual suspects would be arguing that there's really more progress than the Defeatocrats are acknowleding, but I can't think of anyone who's seriously trying to make that case. Apparently no one thinks that political compromise is anywhere in the near offing.

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CASUALTIES....Hey, the Pentagon has underreported brain trauma injuries among returning vets by about 500%. What a surprise, eh?

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AFGHANISTAN....Hmmm. It's increasingly looking like Col. Tu's famous aphorism about the Vietnam war is not only true about Iraq, but also about Afghanistan. The Washington Post reports:

Over the past year, all combat encounters against the Taliban have ended with "a very decisive defeat" for the extremists, Brig. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., commander of the U.S. task force training the Afghan army, told reporters this month....But one senior intelligence official, who like others interviewed was not authorized to discuss Afghanistan on the record, said such gains are fleeting.

....At the moment, several officials said, their concern is focused far more on the domestic situation in Afghanistan, where increasing numbers are losing faith in Karzai's government in Kabul. According to a survey released last month by the Asia Foundation, 79 percent of Afghans felt that the government does not care what they think, while 69 percent felt that it is not acceptable to publicly criticize the government.

There's a lot of blame to go around for this state of affairs. Obviously our obsession with Iraq is #1 on the hit parade, but it's equally true that our NATO allies haven't exactly stepped up to the plate in Afghanistan either.

Then again, maybe Afghanistan is a war we can't win no matter what we do. After all, a lot of people have argued that pacifying and democratizing Iraq was impossible from the start, regardless of how many troops we had or what strategy we used, and if this view is right for Iraq, why not for Afghanistan too? As it happens, I've never bought into this idea entirely, but I admit it's persuasive. And frankly, Afghanistan is probably a tougher nut than Iraq, which means it's even more persuasive in this case.

So what's the conventional wisdom these days? The presidential candidates don't talk about Afghanistan much, do they? The Republicans, of course, can't, since there's really nothing they can offer, but what about the Dems? Do they support (a) pulling troops out of Iraq and beefing up our presence in Afghanistan, (b) staying the course, or (c) pulling out? As near as I can tell, the answer is (a) for all three of the leading Democratic candidates — though they haven't said so either loudly or in much detail. That's probably what I think too, but I wonder if that's just because I haven't thought about it very hard?

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT IT TAKES....In the New York Times today, conventional wisdom guru Mark Halperin says that he's finally learned his lesson: he now believes that political reporters should spend less time covering campaign horserace trivia and more time covering the candidates' actual qualifications to run the United States. Halperin's road to Damascus moment has already been thoroughly mocked throughout the blogosphere this morning, so I'll refrain from adding to the bonfire. But I am curious about his explanation for two decades of merciless campaign gossipmongering:

More than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes," about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns.

I'm not alone. The book's thesis — that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office — has shaped the universe of political coverage.

I've never read Cramer's book (though several people have recommended it), but it sure sounds strikingly familiar. Teddy White's famous "Making of the Presidency" books, starting in 1960, were all narrative tick tocks that emphasized the grueling nature of modern campaigns and their obsessive focus on strategizing and press relations. Joe McGinniss's 1968 The Selling of the Presidency was all about the Nixon campaign's marketing strategy. Even quintessential outsider Hunter S. Thompson, in his 1972 dispatches for Rolling Stone (later collected in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72), mostly spotlighted personalities and campaign minutiae.

These were all tremendously influential books long before Cramer wrote What It Takes. And while Cramer might have taken personality-based campaign reporting further than anyone had taken it before, my (imperfect) memory of day-to-day campaign reporting from 1976 on suggests that suprisingly little has changed in the past three decades. Daily campaign coverage in every race I can remember has mostly been about polls, personalities, campaign strategies, speeches, debate performances, the expectations game, and the all important horserace. Today's coverage may be more intense and even more personality driven than in the past, but it's a matter of degree, not substance.

So what's really changed? The coverage itself seems to have evolved, but it hasn't morphed into something entirely new. Perhaps it's this: in the older books, the fact that presidential candidates had to survive an ungodly gauntlet of scrutiny and rubber chicken banquets was reported as a fact of life, but it was (again, to my recollection) mostly reported as an unfortunate fact of life. As in, "How unfortunate that some of the people best suited to be president will never have a chance because they aren't suited to the preposterous rigors of modern campaigning." Maybe after 20 years of this, Cramer provided the press for the first time with a rationalization for its part in this destruction test: don't think of it as unfortunate, think of it as necessary. By making a mountain out of every molehill, reporters are actually providing a stern test that eliminates weaklings who shouldn't be trusted to have their fingers on the button.

Perhaps. But regardless of whether this is true, it's merely a rationalization. Contemporary campaigns may be even more grueling than they were a few decades ago — thanks to modern technology, longer primary seasons, and a bigger press corps — but I doubt that What It Takes is really reponsible for the media's current fascination with personality and horserace journalism. That's always been there.

And the reason for this is pretty simple, too: campaigns are boring. When you cover a candidate every day for months on end, listening to interchangeable stump speeches hundreds of times and being bustled around like cattle to anonymous coffee klatsches and flesh pressing events 16 hours a day, you're going to seize on almost anything to break the monotony. The candidates mostly won't talk to you, after all, and there are only so many times you can write 3,000-word thumbsuckers comparing the various healthcare plans on offer. What's more, the code of objectivity in American journalism actively prevents reporters from writing about whether the various nominees "have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world." That would be too much like taking sides. Unless and until that changes, they'll continue to relieve their boredom by writing about supposedly more neutral topics like polls, insider strategy, and what "many people" are saying.

So while it's nice to see Halperin's mea culpa, I think I'll wait to see if he actually changes the way he covers this year's campaign. And then we'll see if anyone follows suit. My take: since modern press coverage is not a result of the individual foibles of modern campaign reporters, but is rather a natural response to the realities of modern campaigning and the modern media environment, the respective odds are slim and none.

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"A TONAL SHIFT"....This pisses me off:

As violence declines in Baghdad, the leading Democratic presidential candidates are undertaking a new and challenging balancing act on Iraq: acknowledging that success, trying to shift the focus to the lack of political progress there, and highlighting more domestic concerns like health care and the economy.

....Lately, as the killing in Baghdad and other areas has declined, the Democratic candidates have been dwelling less on the results of the troop escalation than on the lack of new government accords in Iraq — a tonal shift from last summer and fall when American military commanders were preparing to testify before Congress asking for more time to allow the surge to show results.

A "tonal shift"? Is this code for "they're saying the same thing as always but there's not much of a story in that"?

Look, if Patrick Healy has some actual evidence that Democrats weren't talking about political progress earlier this year but they are now, then fine. It's a legitimate story. But if he doesn't have any such evidence — and I suspect he doesn't since there's not even a hint of it in the story itself — then he should knock off the tonal analysis and stick to journalism.

Political progress has always been the justification for the surge. When he announced it last January, President Bush explicitly said that the point of reducing violence in Baghdad was to give the Iraqi government "breathing space" to move ahead with political reconciliation. Political progress wasn't just a fringe benefit, it was the whole purpose of the surge: "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises," he said, "it will lose the support of the American people — and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people."

The reduction in violence in Iraq is great news. But it's not a "shift" to say that political reconciliation has always been the real goal of the surge. It has always been the real goal of the surge.

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November 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

AN IRANIAN NPOD....Pretty funny. Reminds me of those high school assemblies in the dim past where we'd get to hear the Soviet line on life in America.

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THE MYSPACE SUICIDE....Have you read the story of Megan Meier? It was a news item so detestable that I didn't want to link to it on Thanksgiving. Obviously there are worse things going on in the world than causing the suicide of one teenage girl, but it's still stomach churning. How can people act this way?

I recommend that you read Jonathan Turley's short op-ed first, which packs a punch and explains the basics. Then read P.J. Huffstutter's longer piece, which fills in the gaps. If you're anything like me, prepare to lose another little shred of faith in your fellow man.

UPDATE: More here.

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CONVICTING THE INNOCENT....Mark Kleiman asks:

Having worked on the problems of crime control for almost thirty years, I tend to be much more sympathetic to the viewpoints and operational needs of law enforcement agencies than the average of the people I usually agree with politically. But on one point, I find myself utterly unable to understand what my friends in the law enforcement biz could possibly be thinking: why isn't it as obvious to them as it is to me that clearing innocent people is just as important a goal of law enforcement as nailing guilty ones?

....By my horseback guess, something like 35,000 of the 1.75 million people now in prison didn't do it. Even one would be too many, of course, but 35,000 innocents behind bars is a whole bunch of injustice. Yet the public seems entirely indifferent to the problem.

I'd say the answer to the first question is pretty obvious. First, no one like to admit mistakes, especially systemic mistakes, for which someone really ought to be fired. Second, admitting mistakes calls into question the reliability of today's convictions, and nobody in law enforcement is very keen to do this. And of course, since, as Mark points out, the public seems indifferent to this problem, law enforcement doesn't have much motivation to change its attitude.

But why is the public indifferent? I'll toss out two hypotheses for that too. First, the public might well think that a 2% error rate isn't all that bad. Second, I'll bet most of the public figures that 99% of that 2% is guilty of something, and therefore, in some cosmic karmic sense, justice is mostly being served after all.

Of course, the fact that these explanations seem obvious to me doesn't mean they're actually correct. Take your own guess in comments.

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THE GOLDEN COMPASS....Morbo notes that The Golden Compass will soon be coming to a movie theater near you:

A few years ago, my daughter and I read "The Golden Compass," the first volume of British author Philip Pullman's trilogy titled "His Dark Materials."

We moved on to the second book but never finished it. Now I'm thinking we made a mistake. A movie version of the first book opens Dec. 7, and the Religious Right is throwing a fit. If the Religious Right does not like this series, it must be worth looking at.

....[Baptist Press] notes that the series is very popular and is marketed to school-aged children through the Scholastic Books firm. Naturally, this being the United States, some of the more controversial themes of the series have been toned down in the film version. But BP still warns that interest in the movie will lead more kids to the books and from there straight to hell.

....These folks need to take a deep breath.

I'm not in the habit of defending the Religious Right, but I have to say that just this once they have a point. I'm sure the movie itself will indeed be harmless, but the books are every conservative Christian's nightmare of what the secular left's real agenda is — assuming you get past the first two volumes, that is. Pullman's attack on Christianity is foreshadowed in those books, but in the third it's laid bare with no attempt at even unsubtle Narnia-esque analogies. The Amber Spyglass is the story of how God (yes, the God of Abraham, the one in the Bible) has ruled despotically and malevolently over the Earth for 30,000 years and the forces of good and decency are finally going to kill him. And they do.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I'd sure want to know about it beforehand if I were a serious Christian browsing around for fantasy books for my kids. And if I were a mucky-muck in the Southern Baptist Convention, I'd be warning parents away from it too. Yeah, they've cried wolf too often over stuff like Harry Potter to have much credibility left, but in this case they're standing on pretty solid ground. These books are about as rabidly anti-Christian as a kids series can get.

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THE RAT RACE....Ezra "Happy Z" Klein say that keeping up with the Joneses is making us all miserable:

But there's an easy solution. Stop. Pull out of the competition. Seriously ask whether you want to continue trading away your time for your stuff. And that requires ignoring what your neighbors have. It requires shutting your eyes against short-term incentives and trying to remember what actually makes you happy, what you tend to remember when each year closes out. It requires keeping a little of that Thanksgiving litany in mind, even after the meal is forgotten and marshmallows and yams again seem an absurd combination.

Well. Ditch the marshmallows and yams? Take a break from the rat race? Reconnect with your fellow man? Is this what happens to products of the Irvine public school system after a few years in our nation's capital? Hmmph.

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November 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), explaining what he meant when he said he was "underwhelmed" by White House discussions on Iraq that he had participated in:

Let me say this. George Bush is a very compassionate person. He's a very good person. And a lot of people don't see that in him, and there's many people in this room who might disagree with that....I just felt a little bit underwhelmed by our discussions, the complexity of them, the depth of them.

Insert obvious joke here.

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November 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HAPPY THANKSGIVING....Blogging will be light for the rest of the weekend as I focus my tryptophan-impaired intellect on turkey and football instead of politics. It's USC vs. Arizona State tonight for (almost) all the marbles! In the meantime, thanks to everyone who's read this blog over the past year. Enjoy your weekend. Inkblot and Domino are certainly planning to.

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TAX CUT NIRVANA....There are times when you almost have to admire their chutzpah. Last week Senate Republicans announced that "Democrat Delays Put Millions of Middle Class Taxpayers at Risk," and today Robert Novak is gleefully going along — though nervously admitting there's a "fear" that Republicans could get the blame for putting all those cherished middle class taxpayers at risk instead. But why would the poor GOP get the blame for Harry Reid's perfidy?

Here's the backstory. Democrats wanted to pass a quick bill to patch the Alternative Minimum Tax, and Novak admits that Reid "was serious about taking action." But Republicans refused to allow the AMT tax cut to be brought up in the Senate unless four other tax cuts were also brought up. Gotta balance a tax cut with a tax cut, after all.

In other words, Democrats were perfectly happy to pass the AMT cut immediately. The only thing stopping them was Republican posturing. But somehow it's Harry Reid's fault.

Like I said, you almost have to admire it.

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November 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

LECONDEL....Ilan Goldenberg explains today that the prefix "le" in Hebrew means "to." So the word lecondel translates as to Condoleezza. And what do Israelis mean by this?

The long buildup to Annapolis, together with Ms. Rice's many trips to the region, have given birth to a new verb in Israeli government circles: "lecondel," meaning, to come and go for meetings that produce few results.

This is actually a very useful new verb. I recommend that we adopt it in the U.S. as well.

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JOE-MENTUM....Ezra Klein makes the case for Joe Biden....for vice president. And it's a good one!

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CLINTON vs. OBAMA....The latest sniping:

Barack Obama, on Monday: "Probably the strongest experience I have in foreign relations is the fact I spent four years overseas when I was a child in Southeast Asia."

Hillary Clinton, on Tuesday: "Voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face. I think we need a president with more experience than that."

Barack Obama, later on Tuesday: "I was wondering which world leader told her that we needed to invade Iraq."

I don't know who "won" this exchange, but Obama practically painted a bullseye on his chest with his initial comment. No opponent with a pulse would have passed up the chance to throw it back in his face.

The good news for Obama, however, is that it gave him a chance to tweak Hillary yet again about Iraq. I don't know for sure if that's a winning strategy, given that his forward strategy for withdrawal isn't very different from HRC's, but it's a helluva lot better than Social Security. If he wants to distinguish himself more sharply from Hillary, this is the place to do it.

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BUSH LOOKS INTO ANOTHER SOUL....You know, I'm willing to cut George Bush a fair amount of slack over Pakistan. There are just no good answers there. But did he really say this about Gen. Pervez Musharraf?

He's been a loyal ally in fighting terrorists. He's also advanced democracy in Pakistan.

Enough's enough. Bush may feel like he has no choice but to support the guy, but it's a travesty for a self-proclaimed democracy promoter to grovel like this over someone with Musharraf's record. Just stop it.

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BUSH AND THE STEM CELLS....Did President Bush's defunding of embryonic stem cell research back in 2001 motivate scientists to redouble their efforts on adult stem cells? Does Bush therefore deserve some of the credit for yesterday's dramatic breakthrough in creating stem cells out of adult skin cells?

Well, Shinya Yamanaka is a Japanese biologist from Kyoto University, so he probably wasn't much affected by Bush's decision. But how about the American scientist? What does he have to say?

One of the researchers involved in yesterday's reports said the Bush restrictions may have slowed discovery of the new method, since scientists first had to study embryonic cells to find out how to accomplish the same thing without embryos.

"My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years," said James Thomson, who led a team at the University of Wisconsin and who discovered human embryonic stem cells in 1998.

In other words: par for the course. Heckuva job, Bushie.

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BOTTOM'S UP....Last week in the Washington Post, John Podesta, Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis wrote an op-ed critical of the surge:

Proponents of the current path claim that, after four years of failed strategies, the surge was needed to get Iraq on track. They point to recent declines in the overall level of violence and cooperation at the local level between some Sunni insurgents and U.S. forces. But the progress being made at the local level often undermines the stated goal of creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq.

Mickey Kaus complains that when you write a sentence like the last one, it sort of demands an explanation. How exactly does progress at the local level hurt the chances of national reconciliation?

He's right. It demands an explanation. But the answer is fairly straightforward. First, the more power that local sheikhs and local militias have, the less likely it is that they'll be willing to give up authority to a central government. Organizing the Sunnis outside of the state fosters confrontation, not integration. Second, Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite allies are increasingly unhappy about our cooperation with Sunni sheikhs and are using it as a convenient excuse to avoid making any compromises at a national level. Shia leaders worry more about making concessions to a group that's increasingly well armed and well organized, not less. Third, for all practical purposes we're arming and organizing both sides in a future civil war. Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, until recently a senior advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, admitted as much here.

Put it all together, and the fear is that we're essentially creating the conditions for a warlord state, not a centrally controlled nation state or even a loose federation. It's worth keeping in mind that our current "bottoms up" approach wasn't a strategy that we consciously chose, it was something we stumbled on and accepted out of necessity. It's a strategy full of contradictions, and making it work is a tightrope walk that requires literally everything to break our way. In a place like Iraq, those are bad odds.

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November 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

KEYBOARD UPDATE....Hooray! My new/old IBM keyboard arrived today, a vintage 1995 Model M complete with clicky-clacky buckling spring technology, never before opened until today. It's noisy! Noisier (and with more of a hollow echo) than I remember, even. And big. None of this "space saver" stuff for us keyboard afficianados. Heavy too. They say you can kill a man with one of these things and then plug it in and blog about it within seconds. Plus the lettering on the keys can probably survive a nuclear blast. (Jim Fallows, take note.)

Luckily, I ordered a PS/2-to-USB adapter along with the keyboard itself, since my four-year-old Dell was decidedly unhappy with the native interface. Apparently they don't make PS/2 interfaces the way they used to.

Anyway, these are the very first words this keyboard has ever typed, which makes you a part of history. In a few days I'll let you know if it lives up to my memories. In the meantime, many thanks to the fine folks at clickykeyboards.com for the excellent service.

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ADULT STEM CELLS....Over at The Corner, today's big news about stem cells derived from adult skin cells is a hot topic of conversation. But I'm a little mystified. This morning, after Yuval Levin wrote a post lauding the discovery and suggesting that it might end the stem cell debate once and for all, he got this response from Ramesh Ponnuru:

Yuval is right: It's not a time for gloating. For one thing, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves in estimating the political impact of this breakthrough: We should wait at least a few days to see how the advocates of embryo-destructive stem-cell research react before concluding that the battle is over. (In the past, they have done what they could to minimize the potential of non-lethal methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells.)

I realize that we all have a tendency to demonize our political opponents, but this is crazy. Ponnuru seems to be implying that there's some sizable contingent on the left that prefers embryonic research for its own sake and will keep fighting for it even if this new approach proves itself completely successful. But why? Inertia? Political bloody mindedness? A demonic delight in destroying embryos for its own sake?

I guess we'll have to wait and see — though it's going to take more than a few days, since even the researchers working on the new skin-cell method admit that their technique isn't suitable for human experimentation yet. But in the past, my take is that those of us who minimized the potential of non-lethal methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells did so because, in fact, those methods really were clearly inferior to embryonic methods. If, by contrast, this new method proves itself to genuinely be the holy grail of stem cell research, I assume everyone will sing huzzahs and go back to arguing about something else.

Or maybe not. We'll see. But for now I'm putting my money on the non-cardboard cutout version of my fellow liberals.

UPDATE: Of course, I suppose there are different interpretations of what it takes to declare that "the battle is over." If the skin cell technique really works out, I'd be happy to channel federal funding solely in that direction because, after all, why not? We've got plenty of other stuff to fight about and who needs the grief? On the other hand, since I continue to believe that embryos aren't human persons in any but the most logic-chopping sense, I certainly wouldn't support a general ban on embryonic research, which likely has uses beyond merely generating stem cells, any more than I'd support a ban on fertility clinics that kill human eggs by the thousands. If that's what it takes for the battle to be over, then I guess it probably won't be any time soon.

UPDATE: Ponnuru responds here. My response: If that's what he meant, fine. But it's just not what his original post either said or implied.

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CROSSWORD PUZZLE SOLUTION.... Sorry, but I spaced out and forgot to post the solution to Sunday's crossword puzzle. Here it is, and thanks to Kathy P. for reminding me about it.












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GUNS....From the LA Times:

The Supreme Court agreed today to take up one of the great debates involving the Constitution and to rule squarely on whether the 2nd Amendment gives individuals the right to have a gun at home for self-defense.

The justices said they would review a ruling that struck down a 31-year-old ban on handguns in Washington.

Good. Regardless of which side you take on this, I've long been astonished that, for all practical purposes, the Supreme Court has never ruled definitively on whether the 2nd Amendment protects individual gun rights.

Of course, the bad news is that this puts gun rights front and center in next year's election, which is almost certainly something that Democrats would prefer to avoid. They better get their talking points ready.

(FWIW — which is pretty close to nothing — my own view has long been that both the wording and the history of the 2nd Amendment support a limited individual right to own guns. You can't ban 'em, but you can regulate 'em.)

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WRITERS STRIKE UPDATE....Over at the New Republic, Mark Evanier has a pretty good little history of the Writers Guild of America and why they go on strike so often. The nickel answer: TV, cable, VCRs, DVDs, and now internet downloads. Every time there's a new technology, producers try to insist that writers shouldn't get a piece of the new action.

On a related note, Daniel Blau, a former "story editor" for America's Next Top Model, tells us about the forgotten writers strike of '06. He's not happy with the WGA.

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QUANTUM CHICANERY....Chad Orzel asks:

What's your favorite example of quantum chicanery?

By "quantum chicanery," I mean somebody using the language of quantum theory to make wildly unrealistc promises of magical results. Examples abound — Bob Park got several months' worth of "What's New" out of some guys who claimed to be able to generate free energy by putting hydrogen in "a state lower than the ground state." My personal favorite was a guy I heard on a talk show (I was stuck in an auto repair place) claiming that the secret to eternal life was to simply concentrate on measuring yourself to be healthy and happy, which would collapse your wavefunction into that state.

Well, does Penrose's view that consciousness is a result of quantum mechanics count? If not, there's always the movie What the Bleep Do We Know? It at least deserves a mention. And don't forget Deepak Chopra, surely one of the front runners in the contest for greatest quantum charlatan of all time.

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TUMORS AND THE GOP....Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Fred Thompson are all cancer survivors. All three are also Republican candidates for president and have offered up proposals to provide healthcare for the uninsured:

But under the plans all three have put forward, cancer survivors such as themselves could not be sure of getting coverage — especially if they were not already covered by a government or job-related plan and had to seek insurance as individuals.

"Unless it's in a state that has very strong consumer protections, they would likely be denied coverage," said economist Paul Fronstin of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, who has reviewed the candidates' proposals. "People with preexisting conditions would not be able to get coverage or would not be able to afford it."

....A Giuliani advisor says the former mayor's campaign is aware of the coverage problem and debating how to address it.

McCain, who has offered the most detailed plan, has made a commitment to improve coverage for the sickest people by working with the states, and he has outlined some ideas he would try to carry out.

Thompson's plan is a broad sketch at this point, and an advisor said specific options on coverage remained in development.

Translation: Um, er, look! Halley's comet!

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STEM CELL BREAKTHROUGH?....Some promising news on the stem cell front:

Researchers in Wisconsin and Japan have turned ordinary human skin cells into what are effectively embryonic stem cells without using embryos or women's eggs — the two hitherto essential ingredients that have embroiled the medically promising field in a long political and ethical debate.

...."This is a tremendous scientific milestone, the biological equivalent to the Wright Brothers' first airplane," said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., a developer of stem cell therapies.

Especially gratifying to stem cell researchers was that some of their biggest critics seemed mollified. Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said he was at a Vatican-sponsored meeting recently where the technique was described. "All the Catholic scientists and ethicists at the conference...had no moral problem with it at all," he said.

The new technique relies on a set of viruses to insert transcription factors into the skin cells, which makes them of limited immediate use. "The FDA would never allow us to use these virally modified cells in patients," Lanza told NewScientist, but understanding how the viruses do their work may help us understand how the transformation into stem cells proceeds in the first place, thus leading to other, safer techniques.

In the past it seems like there's always been some subtle gotcha attached to every promising report of adult stem cell research, so no jumping up and down yet. Still, good news.

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BAGHDAD AND TEHRAN....Anne Applebaum writes today that optimism over Iraq is entirely unwarranted:

Not because things aren't improving in Iraq — it seems they are, at least for the moment — but because the collateral damage inflicted by the war on America's relationships with the rest of the world is a lot deeper and broader than most Americans have realized. It isn't just that the Iraq war invigorated the anti-Americanism that has always been latent pretty much everywhere. What's worse is the fact that — however it all comes out in the end, however successful Iraqi democracy is a decade from now — our conduct of the war has disillusioned our natural friends and supporters and thrown a lasting shadow over our military and political competence. However it all comes out, the price we've paid is too high.

That actually sounded surprisingly....reasonable. That is, until I finished the column and found out just why Applebaum is so agitated about our diminished credibility: because it makes it less likely that anyone will support U.S. military action against Iran. That's the great tragedy of Iraq.

I need a drink.

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BAGHDAD SNAPSHOT....The New York Times reports on life in Baghdad:

The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad's streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.

I sure hope they can make this stick. Until there's some serious progress at the political level I'll remain pretty skeptical, but it would sure be nice to be wrong.

Kevin Drum 1:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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November 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORE SOCIAL SECURITY FOLLIES....From the Washington Post's campaign blog:

Clinton, without naming Obama, also continued to blast him for proposing to the lift the cap on the taxing of Social Security benefits, which are currently taxed at 6 percent, but only on the first $97,000 of a person's income.

"We don't need more Republican scare tactics about a 'Social Security crisis,'" Clinton said. "And we don't need a trillion-dollar tax increase that will hit families already facing higher energy, health care and college costs.

God almighty, is this the most dispiriting "controversy" ever between two Democrats? Obama was wrong to buy into the "crisis" language and wrong to try and make Social Security into a campaign issue in the first place. It's been dead since 2005, it's not a point of serious contention in the Democratic Party, and bringing it up seems like more of a pander to Tim Russert and the rest of the DC press corps than anything else.

On the other hand, lifting the cap on the payroll tax is hardly the devil's snare Hillary is making it out to be, especially if it's phased in over a period of years. In fact, it may be the most thoroughly mainstream liberal approach to extending the solvency of Social Security there is. It would make the payroll tax less regressive, it would close a big chunk of the future funding gap, and its biggest hit would be concentrated on the richest two or three percent of individuals in the country. As for the "trillion dollar" number, that must be over ten years, right? In other words, it's nowhere near as big a tax increase as Hillary implies.

I really can't believe that the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination are squabbling over Social Security minutiae of all things. It's insane. Find something else to smack each other around about, OK?

Kevin Drum 11:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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FOR THE BENEFIT OF HISTORY....Via HuffPo via Atrios, PublicAffairs has posted a short excerpt from Scott McClellan's upcoming memoir of his time in the Bush administration press shop. The subject is Valerie Plame:

The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

There was one problem. It was not true.

I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the president himself.

Now, Lord knows I don't want to question McClellan's claim that his book was "written with no agenda other than to record his experiences and insights for the benefit of history." But would it be presumptuous of me to suspect that his explanation of Plamegate is somehow going to make it out as nothing more than a silly mistake that the press blew all out of proportion?

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HOLBROOKE AND IRAQ....As he was leaving his job of UN ambassador in 2001, Richard Holbrooke said of Saddam Hussein, "His willingness to be cruel internally is not unique in the world, but the combination of that and his willingness to export his problems makes him a clear and present danger at all times. And the next Administration will have to deal with this problem, which we inherited from our predecessors and they now inherit from us."

Matt Yglesias quotes this as evidence that Holbrooke was an Iraq hawk from way back, and concludes, "I'm not very excited by the prospect of Hillary Clinton making him Secretary of State."

But this is crazy. I don't hold any special brief for Holbrooke, but it's not like he was obsessed with Iraq and decided to deliver some big warmongering speech in January 2001 about the evils of Saddam Hussein. All that happened is that he held a final press Q&A before leaving office and gave his thoughts on a couple dozen different subjects. The first question he was asked happened to be about Iraq, and he responded with pretty much the standard State Department view of the time.

What's more, it was hardly a controversial view. Saddam Hussein was a brutal thug, he did have a history of developing WMD programs and hiding them from inspectors, and his "willingness to export his problems," as Holbrooke delicately put it, was pretty indisputable. It's one thing to argue that Holbrooke's later support for the Iraq war makes him unacceptably hawkish — a view that I understand even if I don't share it — but a routine and perfectly defensible denunciation of Saddam Hussein in 2001 really doesn't seem like it qualifies.

Kevin Drum 9:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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SELLING PROGRESSIVISM....The Center for American Progress is test marketing four TV commercials that "explain the progressive movement's core values and policy ideas, its historical accomplishments, and its philosophical differences with conservatives." You can see all four here.

So which one do you like best? Dana Goldstein's favorite is the one on the top right, which is the softest of the bunch. Rick Perlstein, who prefers a more distinct contrast with conservatism, likes all of them except the one on the top right. I'm pretty much with Rick, though my favorite is the one on the top left, which features (a) the contrast Rick likes, along with (b) a kick-ass narrator who softens the edges a bit. Watch 'em all and cast your vote in comments.

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"KILL THE CABLE, KILL THE CABLE!"....From the annals of technological glitches:

On Friday night, during what the participants thought were private talks, Venezuela's oil minister Venezuela Rafael Ramirez and his Iranian counterpart Gholamhossein Nozari, argued that pricing — and selling — oil using the crippled dollar was damaging the cartel.

They said OPEC should formally express its concern about the weakness of the dollar when the cartel makes its official declaration at the close of the summit today. But the Saudis, the world's largest oil producers and de facto head of OPEC, vetoed the proposal. Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, warned that even the mere mention to journalists of the fact that leaders were discussing the weak dollar would cause the US currency to plummet.

Unfortunately his words and those of everyone at the meeting were being broadcast via a live television feed to a group of astonished reporters.

Italics mine. Sadly, Reuters put out a bulletin reporting this in real time, and apparently some OPEC minion with a laptop saw it. The feed was cut off shortly thereafter.

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ANNAPOLIS UPDATE....Speaking of foreign policy competence, here's the latest on the Annapolis Mideast summit. It's supposed to be held at the end of the month:

But no conference date has been set. No invitations have been issued. And no one really agrees on what the participants will actually talk about once they arrive at the Naval Academy for the meeting, which is intended to relaunch Bush's stillborn "road map" plan to create a Palestinian state.

...."No one seems to know what is happening," one senior Arab envoy said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid appearing out of the loop. "I am completely lost."

....Even a senior administration official deeply involved in the preparations confided, before speaking off the record about his expectations: "I can't connect the dots myself because it is still a work in progress."

A one-day conference of 50 different countries is probably not likely to accomplish much anyway, but it would be nice if we could at least avoid too much embarrassment just in arranging the thing.

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HILLARY THE HAWK....As Matt and Ezra say, the biggest progressive beef with Hillary Clinton is that her foreign policy is too hawkish. That's how I feel too, though trying to define what any of us really mean by this is maddeningly difficult. To a large extent, after all, the biggest difference between Hillary and Barack Obama is simply that Hillary refuses to tie herself down. Basically, she wants maximum freedom of action when she takes office, and in the case of foreign policy this isn't necessarily a bad thing to want.

Still, it leaves us all in an uncomfortable position. So let me put things a little differently. I would say that, within a reasonable margin, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore all had roughly similar foreign policy outlooks during the 90s. Today, Gore is obviously opposed to the Iraq war more strongly than either of the Clintons, but my guess is that all three still have pretty similar foreign policy instincts.

Question: Agree or disagree? Iraq aside, do you think Gore has fundamentally changed his worldview since the 90s in ways that Hillary hasn't? Did it need changing? In hindsight, was the Gore/Clinton worldview of the 90s good or bad?

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OIL WOES....The Wall Street Journal reports that a lot of mainstream players in the energy industry are suddenly buying into peak oil theory. But with a twist:

The new adherents — who range from senior Western oil-company executives to current and former officials of the major world exporting countries — don't believe the global oil tank is at the half-empty point. But they share the belief that a global production ceiling is coming for other reasons: restricted access to oil fields, spiraling costs and increasingly complex oil-field geology. This will create a global production plateau, not a peak, they contend, with oil output remaining relatively constant rather than rising or falling.

....On Oct. 31, Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of French oil company Total SA, jolted attendees at a London conference by openly labeling production forecasts of the International Energy Agency, the sober-minded energy watchdog for industrialized nations, as unrealistic....This is "the view of those who like to speak clearly, honestly, and [are] not just trying to please people," he bluntly declared.

The French executive said many existing oil fields are being depleted at rates that will damage their geologic structures, which will limit future output more than most people allow. What's more, some nations endowed with large untapped pools of oil are generating so much revenue from their current production that they feel they don't need to further develop their fields, thus putting another cap on output.

The Journal reports a growing feeling within the industry that oil production could start to plateau at 100 million barrels per day by about 2012, a projection that seems pretty reasonable to me. My own instinct is that 100 million is sort of a theoretical maximum, and that the real-life plateau will be closer to 95 million or so, but 2012 is still probably a decent judgment for when we'll get there.

A big part of these projections is some guesswork about how fast current oil fields are declining. If they're declining slowly, then we need only a small amount of new exploration to keep total production climbing. If they're declining quickly, then it's almost impossible for new exploration to make up for lost production and produce enough extra to keep total production climbing. On that score, Stuart Staniford has a lengthy post today at The Oil Drum that "looks at how existing oil fields are apparently declining, and finds a trend suggesting those declines are worsening, though the reasons for this are not clear yet."

If you're interested in this stuff, read both pieces. The field production data is sort of hardcore peak oil wonkery, while the Journal focuses on real-life issues like political instability and oil exploration investment that will cause problems whether or not peak oil theory is correct. Unfortunately, they both point in the same direction.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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HILLARY AND POLITICS....Sean Wilentz echoes some of my own feeling about how presidential politics plays out every four years:

There's always a Stevenson candidate. Bradley was one of them. Tsongas was one of them. They're the people who are kind of ambivalent about power. "Should I be in this or not... well, yes, because I'm going to represent something new." It's beautiful loserdom. The fact is, you can't govern without politics. That's what democracy is. Democracy isn't some utopian proposition by which the people suddenly rule. We're too complicated a country for that. We have too many interests here. You need someone who can govern, who can build the coalition and move the country forward.

Wilentz is making an argument against Barack Obama (a Stevenson-like candidate) and in favor of Hillary Clinton (a political candidate). And it's a good one. Every four years the press falls in love — momentarily — with a candidate who strikes them as a fresh voice. Someone who tells people what they don't want to hear. Someone who doesn't waffle or hedge. Someone who's a truth teller. But these candidates never win. Never. Bradley and Tsongas didn't win, and neither did John McCain or Gary Hart or John Anderson. That's because most people want to vote for someone who agrees with them, not someone who stands aloof from their most deeply held beliefs.

It's funny how our perceptions change so rapidly. I'm reading Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment right now, a very engaging book about FDR in the years 1932-33, and one of the things that comes through clearly is that during the 1932 campaign the press felt pretty much the same way about Roosevelt as they do now about Hillary Clinton. He was a waffler, a triangulator, and a politico. You had to parse everything he said with care, and even then you couldn't be sure you'd pinned him down on anything. He could be personally engaging when he wanted to be, but it was mostly an act. Behind it, he was a ruthless manipulator.

This is all conventional wisdom these days, but Alter does a better than usual job of making it come alive. And of course, reading it today you mostly just laugh along. What a rascal that FDR was! But that's not how it struck people in real time. (At least, not at first.) For obvious reasons, most of us dislike people who not only manipulate the political process but seem to actively enjoy doing so.

At the same time, we're also routinely disappointed when we elect someone who doesn't know how to manipulate the political process and therefore gets nothing done. On that score, my guess is that if Hillary Clinton is elected president — and I think she will be — she'll turn out to be a pretty good one. Like FDR she has a good idea of where she wants to go, even if she doesn't know every step of the way there. She understands politics, she understands what's possible, she's become a shrewd calculator of the odds, and she understands her enemies. She'll never end up with her portait on the dime, but I'll bet that when 2016 rolls around she'll have accomplished more than most of us expect.

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November 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

100,000 TROOPS FOR 30 YEARS.....Marc Lynch says of surge supporter Stephen Biddle, "he's a serious guy so I take him seriously." Here's his precis of a talk Biddle gave on Friday:

Without getting in to his arguments or my reservations, I just wanted to lay out Biddle's best case scenario as he presented it: if everything goes right and if the US continues to "hit the lottery" with the spread of local ceasefires and none of a dozen different spoilers happens, then a patchwork of local ceasefires between heavily armed, mistrustful communities could possibly hold if and only if the US keeps 80,000-100,000 troops in Iraq for the next twenty to thirty years. And that's the best case scenario of one of the current strategy's smartest supporters. Man.

Man indeed.

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ANOTHER CROSSWORD PUZZLE!....I was browsing through my blog files the other day and came across something I'd forgotten about. Back in May Gina Cooper asked me if I'd create a crossword puzzle for the YearlyKos journal she was putting together for the convention. That sounded like fun so I went ahead and did it. However, the journal never came together and eventually the whole thing slipped my mind until I ran across it again yesterday.

But there's no point in wasting a perfectly good crossword puzzle, is there? So here it is: the unofficial 2007 YearlyKos crossword puzzle. It's a PDF, so just click the link and print it out. Note that this puzzle is (a) themed, (b) easier than the one I posted last year, and (c) higher in quality, too, since there are no made-up words. There are two slightly obscure words that I couldn't quite work my way around, but nothing remotely as ridiculous as EAAT or SESSR, which I used in my first puzzle.

Have fun! Answers tomorrow. UPDATE: Solution here.

BY THE WAY: Feel free to chat about the puzzle and impugn my grasp of the English language in comments. Those of you who don't want to risk seeing any hints should stay away from the comment thread until you're finished.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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November 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PAKISTAN'S NUKES....The New York Times has a front page story running today about a "highly classified" U.S. program to help Pakistan secure its nuclear arsenal. My first thought when I read the headline was, "You know, this is one classified program that maybe the Times should have considered not reporting on." Reading further, it turns out they did consider it:

The New York Times has known details of the secret program for more than three years....The newspaper agreed to delay publication of the article after considering a request from the Bush administration, which argued that premature disclosure could hurt the effort to secure the weapons.

Since then, some elements of the program have been discussed in the Pakistani news media....The Times told the administration last week that it was reopening its examination of the program in light of those disclosures and the current instability in Pakistan. Early this week, the White House withdrew its request that publication be withheld, though it was unwilling to discuss details of the program.

How about that? Turns out the Times isn't staffed by traitors after all.

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VIOXX....Shorter Joseph Nocera: Mistakes were made and lots of people died. But that's certainly no reason to take the extreme step of getting the legal system involved. Brad DeLong has the longer version.

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IRONY ALERT....Seriously? The guy who got busted for circulating "Ron Paul Dollars" is named Nuthouse?

OK, it's actually NotHaus. Bernard von NotHaus. But still. Where are the Daily Show writers when you need them?

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MORNING QUIZ....In what order have these colors been placed?

  • Brown

  • White

  • Green

  • Gray

  • Black

  • Rose

  • Blue

  • Tan

  • Gold

  • Teal

  • Lavender

Answer below the fold.

It's the order of their popularity as a surname in the United States according to the Census Bureau. Brown is the #4 name, Lavender is #4,340. Drum, sadly, doesn't break the top 5,000. Full list here.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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November 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN McCAIN UPDATE....From David Freddoso at The Corner:

I'm told that "Bitch-Gate" has caused McCain's campaign to have one of its best Internet fund-raising days so far.

I'm sure he must be very proud.

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GROVER-LAND....Matt Yglesias asks:

Here's a question. We know that some Democrats are opposed to closing the "carried interest" tax loophole because hedge fund managers give a lot of money to Democrats. But so why don't Republicans try to embarrass the Chuck Schumers of the world by coming out against this loophole? Normally Republicans never miss a chance to do a favor to rich people, but most hedge fund money goes to Democrats so why not pull some jujitsu?

Silly Matt. Virtually every Republican in Congress has signed — using the blood of their first-born child — Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge. Everyone knows that "closing a loophole" is just crafty liberalspeak for "increasing your taxes," so voting to tax hedge fund managers at normal rates would cause all pledge-abiding members of the GOP caucus to explode. Or, in any case, open them up to Grover Norquist saying mean things about them.

Besides, you know the old saying. "First they came for the hedge fund billionaires, and I didn't speak up because I was not a hedge fund billionaire. Then they came for the trust fund billionaires, and I didn't speak up because I was not a trust fund billionaire. They they came for the real estate billionaires, and I didn't speak up because I was not a real estate billionaire. Then they came for me, and by that time there were no billionaires left to speak up."

It's a dog-eat-dog world out there. America's billionaires need to stick together.

Kevin Drum 5:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....The best way to get a good picture of a cat with a black face is to use a flash unit. I never do that, partly because I don't like flash photos much, and partly because I use a wide-angle attachment on my camera that keeps the built-in flash from working. This week, though, I ditched the attachment and played around with the flash, hoping to produce some stunning, hair-sharp Domino photos for you. I'm afraid that didn't work out very well, but luckily the weather has been lovely and warm recently, prompting everyone to troop into the backyard to play yesterday. I'll keep working on the flash thing.

On the left is Domino rolling around on the patio, warming up her belly and generally acting frisky after getting over last week's sniffles. On the right, Inkblot hides on the savannah hoping that a wild can of cat food will wander carelessly by.

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ON THE GROUND IN IRAQ....Why is violence is down in Iraq? Possible answers: The surge is providing additional security. The Anbar Awakening has gotten Sunni tribe leaders on our side and reduced the killing power of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sectarian cleansing has cut down the number of powderkeg neighborhoods in Baghdad. Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to stand down the Mahdi Army has removed one of the main sources of Shiite violence.

The surge, obviously, will be coming to an end over the next few months. So what about the other three factors? Is local level progress enough to eventually produce some kind of national reconciliation? Three recent pieces offer a pessimistic assessment. First, Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post:

Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq.

....All the U.S. military officials interviewed said their most pressing concern is that Sunnis will sour if the Iraqi government doesn't begin to reciprocate their peace overtures. "The Sunnis have shown great patience," said Campbell. "You don't want the Sunnis that are working with you . . . to go back to the dark side." The Army officer who requested anonymity said that if the Iraqi government doesn't reach out, then for former Sunni insurgents "it's game on — they're back to attacking again."

Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker:

Sheikh Zaidan al-Awad, a prominent Sunni tribal leader from Anbar....said that Anbar's Sunni tribes no longer had any need to exact blood vengeance on U.S. forces. "We've already taken our revenge," he said. "We're the ones who've made them crawl on their stomachs, and now we're the ones to pick them up." He added, "Once Anbar is settled, we must take control of Baghdad, and we will." There would have to be a lot more fighting before the capital was taken back from the Shiites, he said. "The Anbaris will take charge of the purge. What the whole world failed to do in Anbar, we have done overnight. Baghdad will be a lot easier."

Many of the players in Iraq seemed, like Zaidan, to be positioning themselves for the next battle. While the Shiites issued warnings about the Sunnis' intentions, nearly all the talk among the Americans was of the Mahdi Army and its reputed sponsor, Iran, which Petraeus accused of waging a "proxy war" in Iraq; there were dismissive references to Al Qaeda as a spent force.

Marc Lynch:

Unless the local-level deals are consolidated into a national arrangement, the security gains will easily be blown away like so much tumbleweed when the atmosphere goes sour. Maliki now describes those calling for national reconciliation as conspirators and as selfish politicians making unreasonable demands for their own self-interest. Backers of the bottom-up approach increasingly seem to be accepting this convenient frame, since it justifies ignoring the point of greatest failure. After all those months where Maliki was vilified for refusing to move on national reconciliation, he now finds Americans far more receptive to essentially the same arguments: don't worry about the "failure" of national reconciliation since it isn't important or desirable. And so he is moving ahead without the troublesome Sunni politicians, taking advantage of the space created by a moment of relative security to...further marginalize his Sunni "partners."

All three of these pieces are worth reading in full. As things stand now, nearly everyone seems to have given up completely on the idea of national reconciliation, which was the nominal goal of the surge in the first place. Instead, we're said to be making "bottoms up" progress. Provincial elections will do what national elections haven't. It'll be slow and messy, but it's just a different way of getting to the same place.

Maybe. But from my seat it looks like the same old happy talk. Neither the Shiites nor the Sunnis have so far demonstrated any serious desire to compromise on the key issues of national governance. Instead, they're just using the surge as a way of catching their breath and readying themselves for the battle to come. When it does, whose side will we be on?

Kevin Drum 2:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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MODERATING THE DEBATES....So I'm curious: how does everyone think presidential debates should be handled? I'm as tired as everyone of moderators trying to turn every question into a gotcha, but the fact that the pros are annoying doesn't automatically mean that the audience questions are any better. Let's face it: most of them don't even rise to the level of softballs. They're more like beachballs: "How will you get us out of Iraq?" "What's your plan for healthcare?" "How will you bring us together?"

Now, there's nothing wrong with a few beachballs. Giving every candidate a couple of minutes to simply explain their healthcare plan — or whatever — without interruption is fine. But then what? Do we really want several months of "debates" in which candidates do nothing but rattle off bits and pieces of their stump speeches endlessly?

I dunno. It's true that Wolf Blitzer was almost a parody last night. It was sort of astonishing to watch him get visibly perturbed every single time a candidate seemed about to make a substantive point, as if talking about their actual record or explaining some policy detail was cheating of some kind and had to be cut off. On the other hand, it's also true that the candidates, as candidates will, mostly seemed like they would have given their entire stump speech in response to every question if Blitzer hadn't cut them off. So what to do? Given the format of these things, is there really any way to make them more watchable and more meaningful?

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IRAN AND THE IEDs....Apparently Iran is living up to its promise to try to halt the flow of IEDs and other explosives across the border into Iraq:

"We have not seen any recent evidence that weapons continue to come across the border into Iraq," Maj. Gen. James Simmons said. "We believe that the initiatives and the commitments that the Iranians have made appear to be holding up."

....The U.S. military last week released nine Iranians detained in Iraq, including two men the Americans had accused of belonging to the elite Quds Force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In a show of optimism, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he hoped the move would pave the way this month for a fourth meeting of U.S. and Iranian officials regarding Iraqi security.

Obviously this doesn't mean the Iranian leadership has suddenly turned into a lovable clutch of care bears, but it is, as they say in the biz, a signal. Whether it's happening in deference to Iran's allies in Iraq or as a way of indicating that Iran wants to ratchet down tensions with the U.S. is hard to say, but who cares? It's a small opening, and hopefully Ryan Crocker and Condi Rice can keep Dick Cheney's crew holed up in their secret bunkers long enough to give it a chance to play it out. Stay tuned.

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ACTION JACKSON....When we last left him, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson was gleefully telling an audience that he had scuttled an advertising contract after the winning bidder told him he didn't like George Bush much. "He didn't get the contract," Jackson said. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

Later Jackson said he had just been kidding, and HUD's inspector general let him off the hook even though three HUD staffers remembered him saying something similar at a staff meeting. Now, though, it appears that Jackson may have been doing more than merely keeping contracts away from people who didn't support the Bush administration. Apparently he was also steering business to his friends:

Behind the scenes, Jackson has helped to arrange lucrative contract work running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for friends and associates who went to work at HUD-controlled housing authorities in New Orleans and the Virgin Islands, according to people familiar with his actions. Indeed, one of Jackson's good friends, Atlanta lawyer Michael Hollis, appears to have been paid approximately $1 million for managing the troubled Virgin Islands Housing Authority.

....[Another friend,] William Hairston, a stucco contractor from Hilton Head Island, S.C....acknowledged that Jackson had helped him land a lucrative job around January 2006 at the Housing Authority of New Orleans, or HANO. HUD and a former HANO official have said that Hairston was paid about $485,000 for working as a construction manager at HANO during an 18-month period.

Edward Pound of National Journal has the full story of the investigation by a federal grand jury, Justice Department prosecutors, the FBI, and the HUD inspector general's office here.

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November 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE WRAPUP....Well, the best political team on television (or whatever they call themselves) seems hellbent on agreeing that Hillary is back! Obama just couldn't bring the fire again.

My take is that this just goes to show how starved everyone is for something to talk about. Frankly, Hillary's "stumbles" in the last debate were pretty minor, and there was never any reason to think that she wouldn't be back to her old self this time around. Ditto for Obama, who did about as well as he usually does — namely OK, but not great. The debate format really doesn't seem to favor him. He does better in speeches than he does in soundbites.

As with virtually every debate, the bottom line is that no one made any huge mistakes and no one kicked any serious ass. Pretty much everyone left the stage in about the same shape they were in when they walked onto it.

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DEBATE GRAB BAG....Dodd sure got a huge round of applause from the audience when he said that NCLB was a catastrophe, didn't he?

Clinton: National security is "absolutely" more important than human rights. No hesitation.

Biden is pretty obviously not really running for president. So what is he doing?

Barack Obama just used the phrase "sound science" in response to a question about nuclear waste. Bad Barack. Doesn't he know that "sound science" is a conservative code phrase for "whatever corporations want"?

Hillary: "They aren't attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because [wait a beat] I'm ahead." Huge applause.

Hmmm. Big boos when Edwards says something about Hillary Clinton and corporate interests. But I had just turned away and missed exactly what it was.

Thinking a bit during the break here....Starting out the debate with such a moronic attempt to stoke up the conflict between Hillary Clinton and everyone else actually worked out in Hillary's favor, didn't it? It was so obvious and so dumb that ever since then I think everyone has been a little hesitant to add fuel to such a transparently fabricated fire.

From Dave Weigel's liveblogging: "8:30: As the conspiracists hoped, Blitzer is saving Hillary's ass. He asks everyone about illegal alien licenses and they dish out the same poisonous gruel that Hillary did last time. No one can say 'yes' or 'no.' Except for Hillary, who says 'no' and smiles like she just took your house in a poker game." That's true, isn't it?

Break is over, it's back to real-time blogging. Kyl-Lieberman. Private contractors. Nothing new on either front.

Obama, responding to Hillary Clinton on Social Security: "This is the kind of thing that I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, playing with numbers to make a point." Oooh.

It's 9:50 Eastern and Blitzer just said we have a "lot more" after the break. When does this thing end? I thought it was two hours. Or does five additional minutes now count as a lot more?

Biden's top choice for the Supreme Court would be a female dogcatcher who supports privacy rights?

Obama on how he'd bring everyone together after he was elected: "I would convene a continuous advisory meeting including both Democrats and Republicans." A continuous advisory meeting? Yeesh.

A fun question! Oh boy! Diamonds or pearls?

Coming up in two weeks: the long-awaited Republican YouTube debate!

Anderson Cooper: Let's hear about the big Clinton-Obama slugfest!

And with that, I'm off to dinner. Keep 'em coming in comments while I eat.

Kevin Drum 8:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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FULL ACCOUNTING....Merrill Lynch was widely expected to appoint BlackRock CEO Larry Fink as its new chief after Stanley O'Neal left the company earlier this month. Instead they chose NYSE CEO John Thain. CNBC's Charlie Gasparino explains what happened:

CNBC has learned that Fink said he would take the job but only if Merrill did a full accounting of its subprime exposure. At that point, Merrill, which owns 49% of BlackRock, moved in a different direction and decided to go with Thain instead.

Translation: Keep your hands on your wallet. (Via Barry Ritholtz.)

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NO FINDINGS FOR YOU....Gareth Porter, last week:

A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has been held up for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear programme, and thus make the document more supportive of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's militarily aggressive policy toward Iran, according to accounts of the process provided by participants to two former Central Intelligence Agency officers.

But this pressure on intelligence analysts, obviously instigated by Cheney himself, has not produced a draft estimate without those dissenting views, these sources say. The White House has now apparently decided to release the unsatisfactory draft NIE, but without making its key findings public.

CNN on Tuesday:

The director of national intelligence said Tuesday he does not plan to make public any of the key findings of a soon-to-be-completed assessment on Iran's nuclear program.

Mike McConnell said to do so could expose U.S. intelligence capabilities and enable Iran to change its practices.

Those are your choices. The NIE's key findings, which are normally released, are being withheld because (a) they contain dissents Dick Cheney doesn't like, or (b) because they might expose U.S. intelligence capabilities. If you choose (b), I have a subprime loan you might be interested in taking a look at.

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LEGISLATIVE STATECRAFT....Hey, remember Manny Miranda, the Republican Senate aide who filched reams of notes and memos from Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee a few years ago? Sure you do! Even Orrin Hatch disowned him when he found out what Miranda had done, but Miranda remained unrepentant throughout the entire affair and continued to be a darling of right-wing movement activists afterward. Rebecca Sinderbrand updated us on his activities earlier this year.

So what's the latest on Manny? Well, you can't let legislative talent like his go to waste, especially when there are legislatures in dire need of it. The Washington Post reports:

What a surprise to find an old face on the Hill yesterday — former Senate GOP leadership aide Manuel Miranda — but an even bigger surprise was learning his new job: giving legislative advice to fledgling democrats in Baghdad.

Miranda's official title is director of the Office of Legislative Statecraft at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. There, he's giving instruction on democratic principles to Iraqi lawyers and lawmakers, a group of whom he escorted around the Capitol complex yesterday.

The Office of Legislative Statecraft. Indeed. Who needs the Onion when we still have the Bush administration around?

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SID AND HILL....This comes as no surprise, but Sidney Blumenthal has written his last column for Salon and is joining the Hillary Clinton campaign. Here's his defense of Hillary, coupled with a not very subtle swipe at Obama:

I believe that the reason the Republicans have promoted the talking point that Hillary is unelectable is that they fear that more than any other candidate she can create a majority coalition, win and govern. They fear more than loss in one election; they fear the end of the Republican era beginning with Nixon. They know that she has the knowledge, skill and ability to govern. They know that she has already taken everything they can throw against her and is still standing.

Just as the disintegration of the Democrats brought about the rise of the Republicans, the collapse of the Republicans has created an opening for the Democrats. But the Democrats have been victims of their own false euphoria, sanctimony and illusions before....The Democrats at key junctures have been seduced by the illusion of anti-politics to their own detriment. Anti-politics upholds a self-righteous ideal of purity that somehow political conflict can be transcended on angels' wings. The consequences on the right of an assumption of moral superiority and hubris are apparent. Their plight stands as a cautionary tale, but not only as an object lesson for them. Still, the Republican will to power remains ferocious. The hard struggle will require the most capable political leadership, willing to undertake the most difficult tasks, and grace under pressure.

Anti-politics upholds a self-righteous ideal of purity that somehow political conflict can be transcended on angels' wings. Very bloggish, Sidney.

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OBAMA AND THE CRISIS....Jonathan Singer asked Barack Obama on Wednesday about his use of the word "crisis" to define Social Security. Here's what he said:

I know that people, including you, are very sensitive to the concern that we repeat anything that sounds like George Bush. But I have been very clear in fighting privatization. I have been adamant about the fact that I am opposed to it. What I believe is that it is a long-term problem that we should deal with now. And the sooner the deal with it then the better off it's going to be.

So the notion that somehow because George Bush was trying to drum up fear in order to execute [his] agenda means that Democrats shouldn't talk about it at all I think is a mistake. This is part of what I meant when I said we're constantly reacting to the other side instead of setting our own terms for the debate, but also making sure we are honest and straight forward about the issues that we're concerned about.

This is clever rhetorical jujitsu. No, we bloggers don't like the Republican "crisis" framing, but we also hate the idea that Republicans often get to set the terms of debate in American politics. By casting his use of Republican language as a demonstration of independence from Republican language, Obama is demonstrating that he's really one of us even when he's supporting a policy we don't like. I'm impressed — even if I hope he doesn't make a habit of this.

But I'll add one thing. I'm on record (several hundred times, probably) saying that Social Security is basically fine and that the best thing we can do is just leave it alone and then revisit it in a decade or so. At the same time, I don't think any of us would (or should) have any serious problem with, say, a 1983-style commission that beavered away for a year and then recommended a basket of modest tax increases and benefit reductions to keep Social Security solvent for the rest of the century. In fact, if it were enough to get Tim Russert to shut up about the whole thing, it might even be worth it.

In other words, this is small potatoes, more a matter of style than substance. As with Hillary's tip or Edwards' house, it's the kind of thing we really shouldn't get too preoccupied with. We have bigger fish to fry.

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THE IDES OF NOVEMBER....Man, when they say central heating in China, they mean central heating. Crikey.

UPDATE: Huh. The Ides of March may be on the 15th, but the Ides of November are on the 13th. You learn something new every day.

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NATIONAL SECURITY MISCELLANY....Via Heather Hurlburt, here's a UN Foundation report of key findings from focus groups and a national survey. This is one of those deals where they interview a bunch of people and then segment everyone into cute sounding groups — "Fortress America," "New Isolationist," etc. — and I confess that I'm always a little skeptical of these exercises. But for the sake of conversation, here are a few of their findings:

  • There's only one national security issue that resonates effectively with every demographic group: reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. It's not the top issue for most people, but it's the only issue that makes the top 3 for every single group, both left and right.

  • If you want to talk up the goal of getting America more engaged in the world, don't use the word multilateralism. It polls badly. Use international cooperation instead.

  • Among a group of qualities people want to see in the next president, the top response among Democrats, Republicans, and swing voters is the same: "Is committed to keeping America strong and secure around the world."

  • Among a set of different messages related to improving America's role in the world, here's the one that tested best:

    America can not face all of its enemies or solve the world's problems alone. We need help. But to gain help we have to work more closely with other countries around the world. We need to share the burden and not be the sole supplier of resources, finances, military forces, and diplomacy for peace in the world.

    This was the only message wording that tested well among all groups on both right, left, and center.

And since this whole thing wouldn't be complete without a graph, here's one about generational attitudes. When asked if America should be more actively involved in world affairs or whether we should focus more on issues at home, the answer broke down starkly by age group. Unsurprisingly, young people, who have witnessed the Bush misadventure in Iraq and not much else in their lives, have become pretty jaundiced about America's role in the world.

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November 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

REGRETS....This might be the greatest excuse ever for not making it to a friend's marriage ceremony:

Former Vice President Al Gore, a senior adviser at Google, told the Chronicle he has been invited to the wedding but will not be able to make it because he will be picking up the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

The happy groom is Google co-founder Larry Page. Gore is on the board of directors a senior advisor at Google.

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BRAND OBAMA....When the curtain finally came down last week on Karen Hughes' ill-fated effort to spruce up Brand America, Fred Kaplan decided to ask his readers to send in their advice for making America a little less disliked in the world. Virtually all of the feedback came either from foreigners or from Americans living abroad, and here was the #1 suggestion:

Several readers emphasize that many foreigners, even those with high levels of education, have no concept of American life. They don't know that most Americans are religious people. They don't know that most of us aren't wildly rich. They're skeptical of reports that many black people live here — or dismiss them as not "real Americans."....And so the most prominent suggestion on how to improve America's face in the world — a suggestion made by well over half of those who wrote me — is to send the world more American faces and to bring more of the world's faces into America.

....An American exchange student in Jordan writes of the foreigners he's met: "Once they see Americans — blacks, Jews, Asians, and 'real' Americans, as they call blonde-haired Caucasians — and hear their diverse opinions on issues from the War in Iraq to pop music, then people realize how much diversity there is in our country."

This might be the single most compelling reason there is to vote for Barack Obama. All of the Democratic candidates would improve America's substantive position in the world, but Obama goes a step further by being the only one who would improve our standing just by being who he is. Food for thought.

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OCTOBER HOUSING NEWS....As California goes, so goes the nation?

The Southern California housing market beat a fast retreat in October as the median price plunged 8% to relinquish two years of gains and sales volume slipped to a record low, data released today show.

The median price paid for a Southland home last month was $444,000....12% below the peak of $505,000 reached last spring and was the lowest since April 2005, DataQuick said. As prices continue to slide, said DataQuick President Marshall Prentice, "a lot of potential buyers seem to be waiting this one out."

"It's hard to buy a home when you think it might lose value, especially when you have to borrow money to do it," he said.

Hopefully California isn't a bellwether on housing. I don't really want the rest of the country to share our pain on this. But what I want and what's going to happen are two different things. Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that prices still have a long way to go before they stabilize.

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TALK, TALK, TALK....Are Democrats going to force Republicans into a real filibuster if they want to block their latest Iraq withdrawal bill? Majority Whip Dick Durbin throws up a trial balloon here.

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WHAT'S WRONG WITH HILLARY?....In the LA Times this morning, Peter Nicholas writes a piece about Hillary Clinton's operation being "too scripted." The hook, of course, is the planted question at a campaign stop last week:

"It's a small thing that could be a metaphor for a bigger concern for people — over-management and too much caution," said Robert M. Shrum, a senior advisor to the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry.

Exactly. As everyone acknowledges, campaigns plant questions all the time. It's literally a nonstory. There hasn't even been a suggestion that Hillary does it more than anyone else, let alone that she's doing anything unusual.

But it gives the press an excuse to write about something they've all been itching to write about anyway. The planted question itself may be trivial, but the license it gives everyone to build enormous fairy castle metaphors about "what's wrong with Hillary" isn't. Is it any wonder that she's so cautious around the media?

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RUDY AND THE NEW YORK RENAISSANCE....Over at MyDD, Todd Beeton notes that Rudy Giuliani's latest TV ad in New Hampshire doesn't mention 9/11 at all. Instead, it's an (almost) pure paean to the fact that he turned around New York City. New York, Rudy says in the voiceover, was "a city that was in financial crisis, a city that was the crime capital of America, a city that was the welfare capital of America" — until Rudy took over. Eight years later it was sunny, crime free, and "the spirit of the people of the city had changed."

I think people underestimate this appeal of Rudy's. (Including me, probably.) Sure, 9/11 is still his meal ticket, but I suspect that an awful lot of his popularity comes less from that than from the widespread idea that he actually accomplished something. Very few politicians can make this claim credibly, which makes it a uniquely powerful pitch. After all, if Rudy could turn around New York City, why not America? Why not the world? We should expect to see a lot more of this: "Morning in New York City" will probably play for Rudy about as well as "Morning in America" did for Ronald Reagan.

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INNOVATION AND UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE....Jonathan Cohn's cover story in the current issue of the New Republic takes on the conservative claim that a federally-funded universal healthcare plan would stifle medical innovation. It's a good piece that runs down the the usual arguments against this claim (most basic research is government funded, other countries with UHC systems do fine, the free market wastes an awful lot of its research dollars on me-too drugs, etc.), but of course it doesn't provide a smoking gun. How could it? When all the arguments are finished, we're still trying to predict the future and we just can't do it.

But let's add two things anyway. The basic conservative argument is that the vast amount of money spent in America drives the lion's share of medical innovation in the world. Without the prospect of huge returns from the American market, the medical industry wouldn't have the motivation to spend huge amounts of money on applied research and market development, so innovation would be reduced. But Matt Yglesias points out that this is hardly the whole story. After all, it's not as if a UHC bans private citizens (or insurance companies) from paying for therapies that the feds won't:

Insofar as there might be some projects that aren't worth doing at the price the UHC system is prepared to pay, you could just try to get people to pay out of pocket for it. If the innovation's so great, why won't those with money be willing to pay for it? Obviously, the poor won't be able to afford it, but they're no worse off than they are today as un- or under-insured patients.

That seems true, but again we're faced with the empirical question of whether it really is true. Would there be enough rich people willing to go outside the system to provide the same returns for innovation that our current system provides? There's no way to know except by adopting UHC in America, waiting a few decades, and finding out.

Or maybe not. It seems to me that there's some scope here for a natural experiment. There's one specific demographic that has been covered by UHC both in Europe and the United States for the past four decades: elderly people. So here's the experiment: identify various areas of medicine, identify the extent to which they serve patients over the age of 65, and then create some metric to identify the rate of innovation in these areas. If UHC stifles innovation, then you'd expect that the more a particular medical specialty targets the elderly (and is therefore funded solely by UHC), the less innovative it's been over the past 40 years. And if a particular specialty exclusively targets those over 65, you'd expect progress to be almost nil.

This wouldn't be an easy study. Figuring out which specialties target older patients probably isn't too hard, but creating an innovation metric would be tricky. Alternatively, perhaps you could simply look at medical industry R&D spending, since that's what drives the innovation in the first place. Even if you can do all that, though, there's still a big cross-pollination problem, since advances in one area might be driven largely by related advances in another area.

Still, there's considerable scope for some very useful research here, no? I'd venture to guess that most Alzheimer's therapies worldwide, for example, are paid for by UHC. Ditto for hip replacements and cataract surgeries. So how much innovation has there been in those areas, and how does it compare to innovation in, say, antibiotics or statins that are used by patients of all ages?

Seems like something that would be worth a few million dollars in federal grants. A little data never hurt anyone, did it?

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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November 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

VOTER ID....The State of Indiana has the most stringent voter ID laws in the country. Democrats are always griping about this, and have even gone so far as to challenge Indiana's law in the Supreme Court. But this is just silly. In this day and age everyone has a photo ID anyway, so what's the problem?

Just in case, though, the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race decided to check and see if this was really true. The three charts reproduced here illustrate the guts of their findings. By a substantial margin, the Indiana residents most likely to possess photo ID turn out to be whites, the middle aged, and high-income voters. And while this is undoubtedly just a wild coincidence, these are also the three groups most like to vote for Republicans. (2006 exit poll data here for the suspicious.) Overall, 91% of registered Republicans had photo IDs compared to only 83% of registered Democrats.

But like I said, this is probably just a coincidence. I'm sure Karl Rove and the RNC had no idea that the demographics broke down like this. Right?

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LAME DUCK....The latest from the White House:

President Bush vetoed a $606 billion spending bill Tuesday that would have funded education, health and labor programs for the current fiscal year, complaining that it was larded with pork and too expensive as he took aim at a top priority of the new Democratic Congress.

....[Dana] Perino said Democrats did not work with the White House on the bill and stuffed more than 2,000 pet projects known as earmarks into it, despite campaign pledges to restrain themselves. Bush, she said, "will ask Congress to take out the pork and reduce the overall spending level and return it to him quickly."

It's funny how much more opposed Bush is to Democratic pork than he was to Republican pork, isn't it?

But whatever. I don't think anyone seriously believes that Bush really cares about the earmarks in this bill. Basically, he seems to have decided that the only way to stay relevant is to veto stuff. Within the borders of the United States, it's pretty much the only influence he has left. Democrats don't care about him, Republicans wish he'd go away, and the American public is bored with his snooze-inducing speeches. What else can he do to attract attention?

(The answer is: Start a fight with Iran, of course. Letting him play with his veto pen is obviously preferable, no?)

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EXPLAINING THE 'SPHERE....LizardBreath asks:

I've got a question for the married/long-term-involved commenters, particularly those who, like me, are either slightly too old or way too old to be part of the Facebook/Myspace/Twitter/Whatever generation where everyone's used to conducting their social life online. What does your spouse know about Unfogged, and how much of an effort of it was to convey it?

Answer: nothing, and therefore, it was no problem.

On the other hand, explaining this very short comment to my sister was a real pain. First you explain that the president does a radio address every week and that the Democrats get to give one too. And that particular week the Dems chose to talk about SCHIP — detour here for a nickel summary of what SCHIP is — and that furthermore, in an effort to be cute, they chose a 12-year-old named Graeme Frost to deliver their speech. Deep breath. And then a bunch of right-wing bloggers went crazy, because SCHIP has eligibility requirements and they suspected that Graeme's family didn't comply and the whole thing was a gigantic DNC scam. And one of the craziest of them, Michelle Malkin, decided to visit the father's rental property and then drive by his house to take a close a look at the Frost family lifestyle. And that's why there's a joke about Michelle Malkin "keeping a vigilant(e) eye on Mr. Drum's household."

Anyway, after all that everyone is exhausted and realizes that asking questions about the blog is way too much trouble. What normal person wants to sit through an explanation like that just to understand some offhand one-line joke?

As for the Facebook/Myspace/Twitter/Whatever generation, the part I don't get is not that they live out much of their social lives online. That's easily graspable. The part that boggles me is that, at least for many of them, they literally seem to want to be in touch with their social network every single minute. What does that mean for the future of Western civilization?

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PRINCE OF DARKNESS UPDATE....On Monday, Fred Thompson snagged the support of the National Right To Life Committee while Mitt Romney landed an endorsement by the California Republican Assembly. Ed Kilgore asks an interesting question:

Today's news also makes me wonder if Robert Novak is losing his touch as an analyst of conservative Republican infighting. Just last week he did a column suggesting that Fred Thompson had profoundly, perhaps irreversibly, alienated right-to-lifers in an appearance on Meet the Press. Not so much, it appears. And about three weeks ago, he did anoher column documenting the deep satisfaction of California conservatives with Rudy Giuliani, his positions on abortion and gay rights notwithstanding. Wrong again, Batman.

Most references to Novak in the liberal blogosphere are of the form, "Sure, he's an SOB, but he does have good sources in conservo-land." So now what? He's just an SOB full stop?

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EDWARDS AND CLINTON....From the New York Times political blog:

So how is John Edwards feeling about Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York these days? So bad, apparently, that in an interview last week he twice refused to say whether he would endorse her should she win the Democratic presidential nomination.

It is a standard political question, which often comes with a standard answer. And it is highly unusual for a candidate to decline to answer whether he would ultimately support the party's nominee.

....Between campaign appearances last week, as he rode through eastern Iowa in his campaign van, Mr. Edwards declined to answer whether he would support Mrs. Clinton.

"I'm not willing to talk about that at this point," he said, waiting silently until the next question was asked.

What did I miss? Or was it something behind the scenes? Sure, Edwards has been taking on Hillary Clinton pretty directly, but I can't remember anything going on between them that might have caused this level of bad blood. It's especially odd since Edwards quite plainly will endorse Hillary Clinton if she's the Democratic nominee. Anything else would be political suicide.

Very mysterious. I wonder if this is purely heat-of-the-battle campaign talk or if it goes back before that?

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MIRROR, MIRROR....Ross Douthat writes about the problem of stale columnists who stay on the job year after year after year:

There are columnists who stay persistently interesting even after decades on the job, but they're few and far between, and even the best of them might profit from five-year sabbaticals here and there. The rest should be...strictly term-limited, at five or ten or fifteen years. It would be good for us, the readers, and good for them as well.

But what about the beam in our own eye? Do bloggers get stale too? There's a whole generation of high-traffic political bloggers who have recently passed the five-year mark and show no signs of quitting. Should we all be taking sabbaticals too?

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MUSHARRAF WATCH....The latest from Pakistan:

Hundreds of riot policemen blocked the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and her supporters from setting out today on a planned march from Lahore across 160 miles of Punjab Province to the capital, Islamabad.

Ms. Bhutto, barricaded in her home here, called for the resignation of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in a telephone interview with CNN this morning. She told a group of reporters by telephone that her political party, which usually commands about one-third of the popular vote, will probably boycott the parliamentary elections planned for January, The Associated Press reported.

Obviously Musharraf is safe as long as has the support of the Army, but it looks like it's pretty much time to start the countdown clock on that. I'll be surprised if Musharraf is still in power by the end of the year.

UPDATE: Over at Global Affairs, Manan Ahmed writes that "The tide seems to be receding" and asks, "Is it over?"

It is, if you conceive of it as an instant reaction to an authoritarian step — a flash of anger and frustration that is slowly simmering back down. It is, if you believe that the lawyers and the students represent rather insulated factions of the overall society who do not effect life in a significant enough manner for "ordinary Pakistanis".

....Yet, I do not believe that these are KwiK E Protests that will just go away. Think back to the amazing crowds — hundreds of thousands — that mobilized for the Chief Justice. Think also of those reports about the unpopularity of Musharraf, the fall from grace of the Pakistan Army, the growing discontent about the state of affairs in Pakistan. None of that has changed. None of those miseries have gone away. The Baluchistan crisis is now the Swat and Baluchistan crisis. The Islamists have not disappeared.

These nascent protests will not go away. In fact, they have awakened a new segment of the civil society against The General. A fact that is abundantly clear to those inside.

Kevin Drum 11:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THE COST OF THE WAR....Milton Friedman said that borrowing and taxing were the same thing. With that in mind, here's the tax bill bequeathed to all of us by George Bush:

The economic costs to the United States of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far total approximately $1.5 trillion, according to a new study by congressional Democrats....[The] report, titled "The Hidden Costs of the Iraq War," estimates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have thus far cost the average U.S. family of four more than $20,000.

Are we getting our money's worth?

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REAGAN AND NESHOBA....In the latest go-around on whether Ronald Reagan was deliberately appealing to racist sentiment in 1980 when he included a statement of support for "states' rights" in a speech at Mississippi's Neshoba County Fair, Bob Herbert says, "Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew."

Actually, though, it's Joseph Crespino, a history professor at Emory University, who provides the smoking gun:

Reagan's states rights line was prepared beforehand and reporters covering the event could not recall him using the term before the Neshoba County appearance.

If this is true it wraps up this argument on pretty much every level, both substantive and semantic. Anybody care to weigh in on this? Is it true that Reagan had never (or virtually never) used the phrase "states's rights" before this speech?

UPDATE: Crespino emails to say that his source was a New York Times article by John Herbers written on September 27, 1980: "Those remarks had been prepared in advance, but use of the term 'states rights' is not in Mr. Reagan's standard political speech and reporters following him could not remember his using it elsewhere."

Brendan Nyhan reprints a Washington Post article from 1979 in which Jane Seaberry described a Reagan speech as "a denunciation of populist trends and a call for a return to more states' rights," but there's no indication that Reagan used the actual phrase himself.

I was able to come up with only one instance of Reagan using the phrase, in a response to a 1980 debate question about nuclear waste. There's no question that he frequently supported federalist policies, but the phrase "states' rights" itself has pretty obvious racial baggage and the evidence so far suggests that he virtually never used it before Neshoba.

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November 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

ANOTHER THOUSAND EMAILS, PLEASE.....Well, since you asked, the reason I think Ron Paul is a crank is because he wants to repeal the 16th amendment, eliminate the personal income tax, abolish the minimum wage, deep six the Federal Reserve, and return the United States to some kind of weird quasi-gold standard. In addition, he's fond of referring to paper currency as "fiat money" — a term pregnant with conspiratorial meaning among goldbugs — and apparently believes that we invaded Iraq largely because they wanted to price their oil in euros. And these aren't just peculiar but harmless idiosyncracies. Paul is obsessed with "fiat money" and talks about it every chance he gets.

Now, your mileage may vary. Maybe you think Paul is onto something. But in my book, Paul's economic views are more than enough to earn him a spot in the crankery hall of fame.

Still, if I had to choose between Ron Paul and, say, Rudy Giuliani for president, would I vote for Paul? You bet. There are worse things than being a crank.

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By: Kevin Drum

RECONCILIATION WATCH....Compare and contrast. The Washington Post reports that the Iraqi government is resisting efforts to organize Sunni security forces:

Although U.S. commanders stress that the coalition is not forming a Sunni militia, Iraqi leaders complain that paying the fighters is tantamount to arming them. The Iraqi government so far has balked at permanently hiring large numbers of the volunteers, resisting pressure from U.S. commanders to lift caps on the number of police in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Only about 1,600 of the volunteers have been trained and sworn in to the Iraqi security forces, primarily with the police.

But Juan Cole reports that recruiting Shiite security forces is another matter entirely:

Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that PM al-Maliki has taken the controversial decision to recruit 18,000 members of Shiite militias into the Iraqi government security forces. (In fact, the Iraqi military has de facto been recruiting a lot of Shiite militiamen anyway).

You have to wonder if this step is intended to offset the American military's pressure to recruit Sunni tribesmen and neighborhood volunteers into the security forces.

One might wonder indeed. Cole suggests that something needs to be done with Shiite militiamen, but a better idea would be to put them in "civilian desk jobs in some department where they can't do much mischief." Unfortunately, that would likely defeat the whole purpose of recruiting them, wouldn't it?

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By: Kevin Drum

CDS....Question of the day: Why is Andrew Sullivan reduced to a state of semi-coherent frothing when the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up? I wouldn't bother asking except that over the past week or so this question has been the subject of numerous emails, listserv conversations, and even on Andrew's blog itself. It is a mystery.

I don't know the answer, but here's what seems most mysterious to me. Obviously lots of people suffer from Clinton Derangement Syndrome. That's not news. But over the past couple of years Andrew has practically scourged himself senseless over the fact that he got sucked into the hubristic and self-absorbed neocon dream of revolution in the Middle East. He plainly recognizes the danger of being dragged down into that particular fever swamp. What's more, over the past few months he's argued that one of the biggest problems facing the country is the "Christianist right" and its interminable inflaming of 60s-era culture war politics.

And yet, he's somehow unable to see that his own visceral loathing of the Clintons — who are in truth fairly ordinary politicians — is the product of precisely the same two things that he so reviles in present circumstances. He can see how the toxic stew they bred warped his thinking over the past few years, but not how the exact same pair of pathologies so obviously warped his thinking during the 90s.

But I don't know. Disliking the Clintons for one reason or another: sure, that's easy to grasp. But during the 90s I never got CDS. I just flat never got it. Obviously I understand the explanations that I've read since then, but on a pure gut level it left me mystified then and it leaves me mystified still. For my money, the problem with the Clintons is that they're too pragmatic, too centrist, and too accomodating. Where the white-hot hatred emanates from remains an enigma.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (152)

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SPEAKING SOFTLY....Admiral William Fallon thinks that the war party needs to ratchet down its Iran rhetoric, and today David Ignatius reports that Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, agrees:

Now that he's out in the sunlight, the 72-year-old retired spy chief has some surprisingly contrarian things to say about Iran and Syria. The gist of his message is that rather than constantly ratcheting up the rhetoric of confrontation, the United States and Israel should be looking for ways to establish a creative dialogue with these adversaries.

....Halevy suggests that Israel should stop its jeremiads that Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. The rhetoric is wrong, he contends, and it gets in the way of finding a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

This is, though hardly a majority view in Israel, not an uncommon one either. There are plenty of people, both there and in the U.S., who understand that bellicose rhetoric is a display of weakness, not strength, a fact that that we recognize easily enough when other people engage in it but not so easily when we do it ourselves.

Ratcheting down the "war of civilizations" talk isn't some magic bullet that will suddenly make the Iranian regime feel secure enough to give up their nuclear program. But it's one step in that direction, and smart foreign policy is all about putting together lots of little steps and pushing on lots of little levers to get what you want. Obviously this isn't George Bush's style — or Dick Cheney's — but they won't be in office forever. The question is: what are they going to do in the time they have left?

Kevin Drum 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Admiral William Fallon, head of Central Command, on the challenge of trying to deal effectively with Iran:

None of this is helped by the continuing stories that just keep going around and around and around that any day now there will be another war which is just not where we want to go.

Getting Iranian behaviour to change and finding ways to get them to come to their senses and do that is the real objective. Attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice in my book.

Kevin Drum 1:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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November 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GOTCHA....I'll second Matt Yglesias's takedown today of Tim Russert's stale and clownish version of gotcha journalism. Russert is a one trick pony whose act got stale a long, long time ago.

I'll just add two things. First, this is not a partisan issue. The gotcha routine, no matter who it comes from, is bad for everyone, both Republicans and Democrats. Second, Russert's schtick perpetuates the idea that the worst possible sin in a politician is displaying even a hint of inconsistency. But you know what? It turns out there are worse things. Obviously politicians should be held accountable for their words, but Russert and his colleagues ought to focus a little more on what's really important and a little less on what somebody said in 1998.

Kevin Drum 10:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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INSTINCTIVE PHYSICS....Thoreau, whose physics conference is not electrifying him at the moment, asks:

Would intelligent aquatic creatures with opposable thumbs ever develop Newtonian mechanics?

Answer: Sure, but they wouldn't have anything to write it down on, so they'd soon forget. In any case, Thoreau brings up this momentous topic as an excuse to observe that our natural surroundings influence our instinctive view of physics. For example:

With air resistance it's not at all obvious that gravity accelerates all objects at the same rate. It took a long time for these things to be figured out, after careful experiments in which different phenomena were separately quantified and/or minimized.

This is something that's puzzled me for a while. If you drop a rock and an olive leaf over a cliff, then sure, the rock will hit the ground first. And that might lead to confusion. But if you toss a big rock and a somewhat smaller rock over a cliff, they'll both hit the ground at about the same time. And frankly, the Greeks were plenty smart enough to have tried this. So why didn't they? And that's not to mention the jillions of folks in between Aristotle and Galileo who apparently didn't try it either. Or even Galileo himself, who didn't drop cannonballs off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which would have been simple and easy, but instead used the cockamamie pendulum route to figure out how things worked.

And what about Avicenna and his contemporaries? They rooted around in territory that was close to Newtonian mechanics, but did they ever figure out that heavier objects don't fall faster than lighter ones? Or the Chinese? Supposedly they invented everything, but did they ever try dropping a pair of printing presses off the Great Wall?

Any historians of science out there? What's the deal with the apparent failure to perform such a butt simple experiment over the course of 20 centuries?

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COLLAPSE....I don't watch much pro football, but today I tuned into the end of the Redskins-Eagles game to give me something to do while I ate lunch. Sheesh. What an epic collapse. Suddenly I understand why the Skins drive Jim Henley into such despair.

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ASSASSINATIONS....In a comment responding to M.J. Rosenberg's post about right-wing Israeli extremists who venerate Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Matt Yglesias says:

It's hardly an original-to-me observation, but Amir really does seem like the rare assassin who actually managed to be quite effective at advancing his agenda.

I've heard that frequently myself, but is it true? John Wilkes Booth may not have saved the Confederacy, but in the longer term he was probably pretty effective — though I suppose you can always make the argument that things would eventually have turned out the same regardless of whether or not Lincoln had served out his second term. But that's cheating: if you take that view of history, then assassins are ineffective by definition and the game is over before it begins.

Part of the problem is that too often we don't even know assassins' motivations in the first place. Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan are ciphers. Ditto for James Earl Ray and Arthur Bremer, and Charles Guiteau had nothing more than a personal beef. Among famous American assassins, that leaves only Leon Czolgosz, who did have a motivation (justice for the working class) and pretty thoroughly failed to do anything about it.

[UPDATE: In comments, Will Divide points out that Teddy Roosevelt, though obviously no anarchist, was friendlier to business reform than McKinley. So Czolgosz may have done his cause some good after all.]

Gavrilo Princip? Serbia certainly didn't do well in the aftermath of WWI, but then again, neither did Austria-Hungary. Brutus? That didn't turn out as planned, did it? Ditto for Nikolai Rysakov et. al., though I suppose one might argue that in the long run they got what they wanted. Nathuram Godse? Hard to say. If his goal was eternal enmity between India and Pakistan, I suppose he got it. Christer Pettersson? Apparently there was no motivation at all.

So: who's the most successful assassin in history? That is, the one who most effectively advanced his stated goals? Is it Yigal Amir, or does someone have a good case to make for someone else?

UPDATE: Henry Farrell alerts me to what the heavy hitters in the academy have to say about this. First, Jones and Olken:

Using a new data set of assassination attempts on all world leaders from 1875 to 2004....We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy. We also find that assassinations affect the intensity of small-scale conflicts.

Second, Iqbal and Zorn:

[A]n analysis of all assassinations of heads of state between 1952 and 1997....Our findings support the existence of an interactive relationship among assassination, leadership succession, and political turmoil: in particular, we find that assassinations' effects on political instability are greatest in systems in which the process of leadership succession is informal and unregulated.

So there you have it.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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GO HOME....Who says America has lost its power to influence the rest of the world?

The Japanese government has created new immigration procedures for foreign visitors — rules that critics say are all too revealing about official attitudes toward foreigners.

On Nov. 20, Japan will begin fingerprinting and photographing non-Japanese travelers as they pass through immigration at air and sea ports. The government says the controls are a necessary security measure aimed at preventing a terrorist attack in Japan.

The new system is modeled on the U.S. program instituted in 2004 that takes digital photos and fingerprints of travelers entering the United States on visas. But the Japanese system goes further by requiring foreign residents — in addition to visitors — to be photographed and fingerprinted.

I wonder if the ongoing arms race to treat every tourist like a potential terrorist is the 21st century version of Smoot-Hawley?

Kevin Drum 11:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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November 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PENMANSHIP....The headline on this Newsweek article talks about "good penmanship," but the text tells a subtly different story:

Beauty seems to be less important than fluidity and speed. [Vanderbilt University professor Steve] Graham's work, and others', has shown that from kindergarten through fourth grade, kids think and write at the same time. (Only later is mental composition divorced from the physical process of handwriting.)...."Measures of speed among elementary-school students are good predictors of the quality and quantity of their writing in middle school," says Stephen Peverly, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "I don't care about legibility."

Hah! Take that, Mom. I may have been the despair of my elementary school teachers in the penmanship department, but now Science™ tells us that "Beauty seems to be less important than fluidity and speed," just like I always thought.

Though, in fairness, I have to admit that not only is my handwriting not very legible, it's not really very fluid or speedy either, so it's not like I come out of this smelling like a rose. A good part of the reason, I suppose, is the peculiar way I hold a pen, which my mother and my teachers spent years kvetching about to no avail. And I have to admit, looking at it in a photo, it looks hellishly awkward, doesn't it? But I've tried the "correct" way of holding a pen, and I've just never been able to get used to it.

And now it's too late. The only think I care about is the quality of my keyboard, not the quality of my handwriting. And soon we'll all have bionic arms and direct neural connections to digital paper anyway, right? To go along with our flying cars. Or so I've been told.

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By: Kevin Drum

NUCLEAR....John McCain offered up some criticism of Bernie Kerik yesterday for bailing out on his job training the Iraqi police, and the Giuliani campaign naturally went ballistic in response. Rich Lowry is perturbed:

I admire the fighting spirit of the Rudy folks, but gee whiz. He's the front-runner! (According to the national polls.) There's no need to come off so defensively, and not every attack requires a nuclear response. Doing it to Joe Biden is one thing, but to fellow Republicans who aren't even a threat at the moment is probably ill-advised.

But this is just the package you get with Rudy. His only instinct is to attack at full throttle no matter what. Someone wants to change the law about ferret ownership? Go nuclear. A magazine runs an ad you don't like on city buses? Go nuclear. His police chief gets some credit for reducing crime? Go nuclear.

This is not a guy with multiple gears or multiple ways of dealing with the world. Attacking is all he knows how to do. If he's elected president, there's no reason to think that will change.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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November 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PROCRUSTEAN QUOTING....Yeah, this is pretty shameless. Usually you have to go to FreeRepublic to find editing this creative, not CNN.

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By: Kevin Drum

AN ODE TO WORD PROCESSING....Sheril Kirshenbaum is giving up her computer for the next couple of days:

This weekend finds me with the unique opportunity to use a vintage Smith-Corona Super Sterling Portable Manual Typewriter. Translation: typing with no plug, connection or correction.

....There's something absolutely genuine about what an old typewriter like this can produce. The blank page in the carriage is full of possibility and somehow in what's composed — even amid uneven spacing, missing letters, and misspelled words — I find freedom. Honesty assembled in plastic, metal, and ribbon.

This is just the opposite of my experience. Like everyone my age, I used a typewriter for the first decade of my writing life, including some very high-quality machines (thanks to my father, who was pretty obsessed with using really good typewriters). But when I discovered word processing for the first time — in 1980, I think — it was like a fog had lifted from my brain and I'd suddenly developed a direct neural connection to a writing tool. From the first moment I used it, I loved the editing and composing freedom that word processing gave me. And while I can't remember every typewriter I've ever used, I can sure remember every word processing program, starting with a Wang dedicated machine at the LA Times, followed by Scripsit and Electric Pencil on a TRS-80, MASS-11 on a VAX, Ami Pro on my first Windows box (still my favorite of the bunch), and finally Microsoft Word. Though, in truth, the parade doesn't end with Word: the vast bulk of my writing for the past five years has been done in the crude text-editing box of Movable Type, which has probably been responsible for more total words of writing than every other implement I've used put together.

But crudeness doesn't matter. Movable Type provides me with a tiny input box and no formatting tools beyond a few HTML tags, but it's still a word processor and I still love it. It feels like an extension of my brain in a way that no typewriter ever did.

Keyboards, though, are a different story. If I could buy a PC keyboard that felt like an IBM Selectric keyboard, I'd snap it up in a second. Or even one that felt like an original IBM PC keyboard. Sadly, every PC keyboard these days feels like junk. It's been years since I had one that I really liked.

UPDATE: Hmmm. This guy claims that keyboards from this company are just like original IBM PC keyboards. For $69 it's worth a try! But should I get it in black, to match my current computer, or pearl white, for that old time IBM goodness? Decisions, decisions.

UPDATE 2: Oh no! Should I get a genuine refurbished IBM Model M 1391401 keyboard instead? Apparently the Unicomp guys above bought the "buckling spring" technology from IBM, so their new keyboards should have the same feel. But do they?

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By: Kevin Drum

REAGAN AND NESHOBA....In case you're looking for the post about Ronald Reagan and Neshoba that David Brooks referred to in his column today, here it is. I wrote that although "Ronald Reagan's record on civil rights was pretty abysmal," I thought he might be getting "a (slightly) bum rap" on this one particular issue.

I wrote about this at the time because Reagan had just died and the subject was in the air. Why it's popping up again, first from Bruce Bartlett and now from Brooks, I don't know.

UPDATE: Ah, Krugman talks about this in his new book. That explains it.

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....On the left, Inkblot poses as King of the World. Or, at least, King of the Bench.

On the right, Domino is trying to take a nap as Inkblot keeps an eye on her. She's a tired kitty. Not only does she have the sniffles this week, but she's tuckered out from overseeing her vast and growing empire, which not only includes the famous tile game, but also Domino Sugar, Domino's Pizza, Domino magazine, and Domino Recording. I don't know how she keeps up with it all.

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By: Kevin Drum

LIQUIDATING....Earlier this week I was musing about the problem of valuing all the CDOs and SIVs that are at the core of the subprime/credit crisis. It's certainly true that if no one is confident about how to value these instruments then the market for commerical paper freezes up, causing the broader financial markets to freeze up in turn. But the reason I was puzzled about this is that CDOs are collections of underlying securities, and if push comes to shove you can always unbundle the CDOs and put the underlying stuff on the market. It's not pretty, but it would be a way to put a value on everything.

Today, via Atrios, we learn what happens if you announce that you're going to do exactly that:

[Standard & Poor's] said it slashed its ratings on Carina CDO Ltd's top tranche of securities by 11 notches to the junk level of BB from the top-notch triple-A after it received a notice on Nov. 1 saying that the controlling noteholders had told the trustee to liquidate.

....The trustee of the Carina CDO has started selling the asset-backed securities — residential-mortgage backed securities and CDOs — making up the CDO at the direction of the structure's noteholders, S&P said.

....The ratings cut on the Carina CDO is more severe than would be justified by the deterioration of the underlying assets because a decision to liquidate would depress prices and affect all notes that were issued, S&P said.

Italics mine. Like Atrios, I don't really understand exactly what's going on here. But it sure sounds like S&P is sending a message to anyone else who might be thinking of liquidating a CDO and thereby revealing what the underlying assets are really worth. Are they really that scared? Any experts care to weigh in on this?

UPDATE: Tanta from Calculated Risk doesn't quite answer all my questions (who could?), but in comments she answers some of them:

The really relevant bit is this: "after it received a notice on Nov. 1 saying that the controlling noteholders had told the trustee to liquidate."

CDOs are not in the normal course of events managed by "controlling noteholders"; they are managed by a portfolio manager on behalf of the noteholders. However, lots of these deals have verbiage in the deal docs that say if certain "trigger events" happen (usually, there is insufficient credit enhancement for the senior noteholders in the form of overcollateralization), the senior noteholders can take control of the thing from the portfolio manager. (They then become the "controlling class.") They can decide whether to keep the deal going, if it's passing through any cash flow at all, or they can decide to start liquidating.

Thing is, in a nutshell, as soon as you have any decision made by a controlling class, you already have a CDO in big trouble, because it's already gotten to the point where the noteholders took over from the manager, and this probably happened because the deal isn't generating enough cash flow to fund its required overcollateralization. So it's not like any old CDO selling assets, it's like a CDO that has already be repossessed by its noteholders selling assets. Of course, it's possible that the original deal underwriter is also a senior noteholder and therefore part of the controlling class. If that is so--I'd have to look it up for this deal--then there's really the potential for a nasty conflict of interest.

The other pertinent language is "a decision to liquidate would depress prices and affect all notes that were issued." The stress on "all notes," not "depress prices." The senior noteholders are supposed to have the right to take control in order to protect their interests (one of the perks of being in senior position). You expect a liquidation to hurt the junior noteholders more than the seniors. If, however, this action really is driving down the price of the senior notes, not just the juniors, then something very curious is going on. The rating agency may be reacting to a really badly written deal document that gives "controlling class" rights to someone with interests that are not really aligned with the rest of the senior noteholders. This can also mean that somebody didn't hedge a position as advertised, leaving no choice for the controlling class but to liquidate even when it would do better by allowing the deal to continue to cash-flow.

It is a long explanation and it's hard to put in a nutshell. That is why your basic business press doesn't even try to explain it, and ends up writing articles that confuse everybody.

Kevin Drum 2:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From waitress Anita Esterday on press corps fascination over whether Hillary Clinton left her a tip during a campaign stop:

You people are really nuts. There's kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now — there's better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn't get a tip.

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RUDY AND BERNIE....Ah, excellent. Via Steve, I see that Rudy Giuliani is refusing to say whether he'd pardon his pal Bernie Kerik if he becomes president. "He may or may not be charged, he may or may not be convicted," Giuliani told the New York Daily News. "Who knows what happens?"

I recommend that the rest of the field start asking this question over and over and over and over. Really, you can't make Rudy tap dance his way around this often enough. Assuming you actually want to win the nomination, that is.

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THE BOX....So now Barack Obama is parroting the "Social Security crisis" line and pandering to the mining industry in the early primary state of Nevada? Ugh.

In fairness, Obama's problem is that he's put himself in a box. He's campaigning as a straight talker, which means that even small, routine panders open him up to attacks as a hypocrite. He's campaigning as the guy who can bring us together, which means that even a modest bit of trash talking provokes squeals from the press corps. He's campaigning as the candidate of fresh, bold ideas, which means that any time he presents a sensible but routine policy idea he takes a hit for being the same old wine with a new label on the bottle. And he's further hurt by the fact that Hillary Clinton's campaign is brilliantly ruthless at taking advantage of all this.

But politics is what it is, and Obama is in a box whether he likes it or not. When you're selling yourself as the candidate of idealism, small deviations disappoint your followers more than big deviations from more conventional candidates. This is why idealistic candidates virtually never win. So far Obama hasn't figured out a way to escape this box, and he doesn't have much time left.

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UNHINGED HAWKERY....Matt Yglesias responds to Joe Lieberman's risible idea that George Bush is the real heir to the Democratic Party tradition of hawkish internationalism:

You'd have to be an idiot to draw from the FDR-Truman school of internationalism the simple lesson that a disposition to start wars is a good idea. After all, JFK was "hawkish," too, but Lieberman seems to forget that his act of hawkery in Vietnam turned out to be a huge fiasco, and his foreign policy triumph came during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he wisely rejected the counsels of the preventive war crowd and instead struck a pragmatic deal.

Obviously all-war all-the-time has long been Lieberman's signature contribution to Democratic Party thinking (like Bill Kristol on the other side) but the willingness of others to swallow the idea that the "internationalism" of the liberal tradition amounts simply to a disposition to kill foreigners is really insane.

"Insane" really is the right word here. Thanks to guys like Kristol, our foreign policy decisions have been increasingly framed through the lens of whether you're willing to go to war. Not any particular war, but simply whether you're willing to go to war in general. It's Prussianism gone wild: every war is a good war.

What makes Lieberman's idea even crazier is that Truman avoided more wars than he joined. That was the whole point of containment. He didn't try to roll back Soviet gains in Eastern Europe; he provided aid to Greece and Turkey but no troops beyond a tiny advisory group; he airlifted supplies to Berlin but didn't start a war over the Soviet blockade; and when he did go to war in Korea, he worked hard to get UN support. Given their actual records, does anyone seriously think that FDR, Truman, or JFK would have invaded Iraq if any of them had been president after 9/11? Anyone?

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By: Kevin Drum

RECISSIONS....Remember that scene in SiCKO where Michael Moore talks to a former healthcare insurance worker about the way insurance companies look for excuses to deny coverage after one of their customers gets sick and files a claim? It's called "recission," and apparently an arbitration judge in LA saw the movie too:

Woodland Hills-based Health Net Inc. avoided paying $35.5 million in medical expenses by rescinding about 1,600 policies between 2000 and 2006. During that period, it paid its senior analyst in charge of cancellations more than $20,000 in bonuses based in part on her meeting or exceeding annual targets for revoking policies, documents disclosed Thursday showed.

....Health Net had sought to keep the documents secret even after it was forced to produce them for the hearing, arguing that they contained proprietary information and could embarrass the company. But....at a hearing on the motion, the judge said, "This clearly involves very significant public interest, and my view is the arbitration proceedings should not be confidential."

The documents show that in 2002, the company's goal for Barbara Fowler, Health Net's senior analyst in charge of rescission reviews, was 15 cancellations a month. She exceeded that, rescinding 275 policies that year — a monthly average of 22.9.

More recently, her goals were expressed in financial terms. Her supervisor described 2003 as a "banner year" for Fowler because the company avoided about "$6 million in unnecessary health care expenses" through her rescission of 301 policies — one more than her performance goal.

In 2005, her goal was to save Health Net at least $6.5 million. Through nearly 300 rescissions, Fowler ended up saving an estimated $7 million, prompting her supervisor to write: "Barbara's successful execution of her job responsibilities have been vital to the profitability" of individual and family policies.

Italics mine. It's worth pointing out that Health Net is neither unique nor evil. If healthcare is provided on an individual basis in a free market, this kind of behavior is inevitable. The only way to avoid it is to provide health insurance on a group basis regardless of past history, and the bigger the group the better since it spreads the risk more evenly. It's one of many arguments in favor of national healthcare.

Want to learn more? Enter our drawing for a free copy of the SiCKO DVD! Just click here.

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SIGH....Mukasey is in:

A divided Senate narrowly confirmed former federal judge Michael B. Mukasey last night as the 81st attorney general, giving the nominee the lowest level of congressional support of any Justice Department leader in the past half-century.

The 53 to 40 vote came after more than four hours of impassioned floor debate, and it reflected an effort by Democrats to register their displeasure with Bush administration policies on torture and the boundaries of presidential power.

I suppose the glass-half-full position is that no Bush nominee would ever have declared waterboarding illegal, so it's not like we could have done any better. And we really do need someone running the Justice Department, since it's basically been on autopilot for the past year or so. And most of the Democratic caucus voted against him.

And the glass-half-empty position? We've got an attorney general who acts like a refugee from a communist reeducation camp, dutifully reciting party-line nonsense dictated by his superiors even though he plainly doesn't believe a word of it. What a shameful episode.

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November 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SPEAK FOR YOURSELF....Responding to my suggestion earlier today that the American public increasingly opposes the Iraq war regardless of how well it's going, Tobin Harshaw of the Opinionator says:

It's a good point, but I suspect some will feel Mr. Drum shows a bit too much pleasure in making it.

Not only is this baseless (read the post and judge for yourself), it's craven. Even worse, it's bad writing. Roy Edroso explained why a few months ago when he contrasted the different ways Christopher Hitchens and Rod Dreher have written about their reactions to 9/11:

One of the things I still admire about Hitchens' writing is that I believe him: not his belligerent analyses, but his portrayal of his own thoughts and feelings. He identifies clearly the personal obsessions that informed his strange reaction to the horrible event — the multicultural versus the monochrome. He puts responsibility for his feelings on himself, and dares the reader to find him insane, because he doesn't care what the reader thinks. Hitchens seeks not to beg his reader's attention and understanding, but to command it.

Dreher has none of this. To speak in the first place of "the feeling all, or nearly all, of us had on 9/11" is a glaring sign that even in confessional mode, Dreher thinks in groupthink, and his announcement that our group feeling was "one of ultimate meaning returned to the world" shows that he can't even get groupthink right. "It couldn't last, but it was — I have to confess — a great feeling... And we were clear that Everything Mattered." Even if you weren't there, you'd have to doubt this, it's so phony. The problem is that Dreher can't take ownership of his own strange thoughts — he has to project them on all of us. I think in the back of his mind he knew he was saying something awful, and so sought to offload responsibility for them.

If you can't take responsibility for what you're saying, you might as well shut up.

I've been meaning to link to that post of Roy's ever since I first read it. It's a good writing lesson.

Kevin Drum 8:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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NERDFURY....Via Jim Henley, we learn that superstar chef Anthony Bourdain possesses a clear-headed and subtle grasp of how to bend the internet to your will:

The question at hand was how to find good restaurants, and his answer was to take the city you want to go to and just google up some restaurant names that serve the dish you're after. Then go to chowhound or another foodie site, and rather than asking about restaurants, you put up an enthusiastic post talking about how you just had the best whatever you're looking for at one of these restaurants.

At that point, what drivingblind likes to call the nerdfury will begin. Posters will show up from nowhere to shower you with disdain, tell you how that place used to be good but has now totally sold out and — most important to your quest — will tell you where you would have gone if you were not some sort of mouth breathing water buffalo.

Anybody who doesn't immediately recognize the truth of this is obviously spending too much time in the real world and not enough time online.

Kevin Drum 5:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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GAG RULE....You may recall an incident a couple of weeks ago in which a circuit court opinion regarding an Egyptian national named Abdallah Higazy was partially sealed by the court. We know about this because the full opinion was accidentally posted on the web for a few hours before it was replaced with a redacted version, and the full version included passages in which Higazy described how he had been treated by the FBI. Marty Lederman comments:

The story about the publication, redaction, and attempted suppression, of the court opinion is, of course, very interesting and important in and of itself.

But let's not lose sight of the more fundamental problem: What was the justification for the court "sealing" Higazy's allegations in the first instance? I am aware of no doctrine in law, or other policy, that permits the FBI or any other law-enforcement or intelligence agency to prevent individuals from describing how they were treated by our government. The fact that the FBI's conduct here was plainly unlawful if Higazy's allegations are true only makes matters worse, since the government should not be able to classify its illegal conduct. But even if the threat had been a lawful interrogation technique, since when can the government insist that you must keep secret what they do to you?

A similar issue is now being litigated in the context of various recent laws that prohibit phone companies and other corporations from revealing that the government has served them with National Security letters requiring production of customer records. One district court recently declared such a gag order unconstitutional, in a case that bears watching.

This is, I think, an ominous development — the increasingly common notion that the government can insist that no one be permitted to publicly disclose what they know about how the government itself investigates crimes and terrorism, and how it treats those suspected of wrongdoing. Am I missing something? Is there some important historical precedent for this?

Actually, I can think of plenty of doctrines in law that permit this. Chinese law, Burmese law, and Zimbabwean law spring to mind. Nothing, until now, in American law, though.

Kevin Drum 2:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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OVERSIGHT....According to the New York Times, 57% of Ohio's charter schools recently received a grade of D or F on the state's school report card. Ezra Klein comments:

On the bright side, in this case, these schools are accountable to the public, and so we have data on their failures and can actually do something about their decline. So this would seem to be a positive outcome: Various new schooling experiments are being tried, many are failing, and were going to close down the catastrophes. What's strange, though, is that I keep hearing that a total absence of public oversight mixed with financial incentives for schools to stay open — and continue making money — will fix education totally. Yet those two things appear to behind the failures here.

This is all part of the great voucher debate, of course, which often seems to proceed as if actual results don't matter. And many times that's true, because an awful lot of voucher proponents are motivated either by some Platonic devotion to the free market as a panacea for everything or by a desire to make sure their kids attend only schools with the right racial or religious makeup. Ditto for things like hating on teachers unions or the endless textbook wars, which are mostly articles of faith untouched by questions of whether they actually make a difference in educational outcomes. It's great fodder for the culture war hucksters, but not so good for actual children.

Kevin Drum 2:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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MULTIMEDIA DEBATES....I learned an interesting thing yesterday: the New York Times has a very cool "interactive video" feature that it's created for this year's presidential debates. Basically, it's a transcript of each debate linked to a video, and if you click on a part of the transcript it takes you directly to that section of video. The most recent Democratic debate is here; the most recent Republican debate is here.

I'd never noticed this before, and it's pretty handy. Just thought I'd let everyone else know about it too.

UPDATE: The Times' debate roundup page has links to all four of the interactive videos they've done so far.

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

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PROGRESS vs. SUPPORT....Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a series of public opinon charts compiled by Charles Franklin showing that support for the war has ticked upward over the past few months. No, strike that. Here's the interesting thing: the trendlines show that opinions about how well the war is going have ticked moderately upward over the past few months. But while I was pondering that and scanning my RSS feeds, Think Progress pointed me to the latest CNN poll, which shows a record high 68% of the public opposing the war.

So: over the past three months the PR campaign from General Petraeus combined with the decline in casualties has produced about a five point increase in the number of people who think the war is going well. But over the same time, it's also produced a three or four point increase in the number of people who oppose the war. Apparently, the American public increasingly opposes the war regardless of how well it's going.

Both the numbers and the timespan are small, so don't read too much into this. Public opinion on both questions has been jumping around within about a ten-point range on both questions for the past year. Still, the fact that opposition is increasing even though more people think the war is going well is striking, and strongly suggests that opposition to the war is past the point of no return. Apparently the American public is smart enough to realize that military progress isn't really that meaningful without political progress, and we haven't seen a dime's worth of that. Unless and until we do, I don't expect this trend to change.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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THE CULTURE OF LIFE....Rosa Brooks writes that the Republican Party has a new litmus test:

Not too long ago, judicial nominees and political candidates could expect to be grilled on abortion. As the Republican leadership became dominated by right-wing evangelicals, staunch opposition to abortion became a precondition for those seeking support from GOP insiders. Soon, abortion was a litmus test for both parties.

....Today, though, the GOP's interest in abortion appears greatly diminished. When President Bush nominated Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general, no one seemed clear about Mukasey's views on abortion — and no one in the GOP seemed to care very much either.

These days, you can forget that old-style GOP rhetoric about "values," "human dignity" and the "culture of life." Because the GOP has a new litmus test for its nominees: Will you or will you not protect U.S. officials who order the torture of prisoners?

The trajectory of this debate has been depressing beyond words. As recently as a year or two ago, conservatives seemed at least occasionally defensive about the whole thing, mostly limiting their defense of torture to ticking time bomb scenarios and the like. It wasn't pretty, but it was at least a tacit admission that torture was shameful enough to be considered only in extremis.

But no more. The party that used to take Darkness at Noon as practically an ur-text about the evils of communism is now home to a snarling pack of presidential candidates who fall all over themselves to defend torture and abusive interrogation as a routine practice. How did we get here?

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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"THANK GOD FOR TALK RADIO!"....Why is Tom Tancredo such a monomaniac on the subject of illegal immigration? In an interview on our radio show with Markos Kounalakis and Peter Laufer, he explains that a lot of it isn't about winning, it's about redefining the playing field:

What happens is, you provide people with some space to get into where they can say, "That guy is a racist xenophobe. That guy is just so crazy that we can take a more moderate stance."

....I have to set the bar as high as I can. I'm being completely candid with you. If I had actually set out to become president, then of course it would be ludicrous for me to do it in the way I'm doing it. I don't have that as my goal; I never have. The only way I can get on that plane and go to Iowa or New Hampshire and spend night after night in hotels in places you've never even heard of is by saying, "Think about why you're doing this, Tom. It is because the issue is important. You are the person that is advancing it." I have the luxury of saying, "I will set the goalposts as far as I can down the field because then I will have a better chance of getting the game played on my side."

So: Politics 101. Stake out an ultra-extreme position so that when the rest of your party endorses a merely extreme position it looks like it's a moderate compromise.

Question: why don't liberals do this? The stock answer is that we're wimps, but I don't think that's it. At least, not always. I think the answer is talk radio. Our extremists don't succeed in redefining the playing field because there's no institutional infrastructure behind them that converts lunacy into political pressure. But conservative extremists have talk radio, which can mobilize hundreds of thousands of phone calls in a single day if they put their mind to it. Tancredo himself explains what happened a few months ago when the White House tried to push through a proposal he didn't like: "The phones at the Senate offices were shut down because of overload. On Tuesday, we had only thirty-six senators on our side, and on Thursday, we had fifty-three. Every single vote that changed was a senator running for reelection in 2008. Thank God for talk radio and the Internet!"

Kevin Drum 12:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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November 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

RUDY AND THE EVANGELICALS....Rich Lowry on Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani:

Just talked to a top social conservative. He says, hinting that more prominent social cons will end up going with Rudy, "There's plenty more where this comes from." On the impact of the Robertson endorsement on the race: "What it does for Rudy is it says, 'It's OK to vote for Rudy.' I think there will be more of that, pre-nomination and post-nomination." On conservative evangelical voters and Giuliani: "If Rudy is the nominee, they're going to vote for him — period."

This strikes me as right. The real core issue of the Christian right has always been "moral decay." Increased acceptance of abortion and gay rights are symptoms of this, and they get most of the attention, but moral decay itself has always been the bedrock fear that drives everything else.

And of all the GOP candidates on offer today, which one is most obviously prepared to kick moral decay's ass? I don't even have to say it, do I?

Of course, that still leaves open the question of whether Rudy can inspire Christian conservatives. It's one thing to be "OK" to vote for Rudy, but it's quite another to actually vote for Rudy — especially if many of the movement's most influential leaders actively oppose him. After all, Karl Rove famously believed that four million evangelicals didn't bother voting in 2000, and that was for a candidate who was far more than just OK. If four million evangelicals couldn't be bothered to vote for George Bush in 2000, even though he was more plainly one of them than any candidate in recent history, what will they do if Rudy is on the ballot?

POSTSCRIPT: Another interesting question: what about the moderate evangelicals? If David Kirkpatrick is right, a lot of them are less focused on abortion and gay marriage than their elders, and therefore might be more open to a social moderate like Rudy. On the other hand, he also says that a lot of them are turned off by the war, and Rudy is certainly the most aggressively pro-war candidate out there. So what will they do?

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GOOD UNIONS, BAD UNIONS....Chris Hayes says he supports unions even though unions sometimes do bad things:

In terms of how to reconcile good behavior of the unions with the bad, I don't really understand why that's an issue. How do you reconcile the good behavior of lawyers with the bad? Or the good behavior of cops with the bad? Everyone agrees there are bad lawyers, bad cops and some bad unions, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have laywers, cops and unions, right?

Ezra Klein agrees:

For all the times someone asks if you can still support unions even though X union did Y thing, you never hear anyone ask whether corporations should, in principle, still exist even though Enron really sucked. But that's just part and parcel of the argument about the UAW, the teacher's unions, and so forth, which are much less about the unions and the systems involved than they are about the legitimacy of organized workers in the first place.

Ah, but here's the thing. It's easy to support corporations in principle because they're the building blocks of market capitalism, and there's a tremendous amount of evidence that market capitalism produces spectacular economic growth. Within the mainstream of the economics profession there are lots of arguments on the fringes about regulation and network effects and institutions and so forth, but no one denies that, fundamentally, market capitalism is the only feasible way to run a modern economy.

Unions have no such luck. Support for unions is spotty among economists, and the academic research about their benefits is mixed. So while throwing out the laissez faire baby with the Enron bathwater is, literally, unthinkable, unions have to earn their keep on a case-by-case basis, so to speak. There's really no way around that.

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VIRGINIA....A prediction: For the next few days, the fashionable political spectator sport in the blogosphere will revolve around contentious but self-assured arguments about how Democrats managed to win control of the Virginia senate and What It All Means™. Possible reasons: (a) the housing bubble, (b) conservative displeasure over actual conservative land use policies, (c) demographic changes, (d) Virginia Dems finally stood up for themselves, (e) Virginia Dems tacked to the center, (f) Virginia Republicans are in disarray, (g) local issues that are meaningless on a national level, (h) something else, or (i) all of the above.

Whatever the consensus turns out to be, I'm declaring right now that I think it's wrong. And somewhere in my archives there will be a post to prove that I thought this all along.

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RUDY AND THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT....Here's a passage from that David Kirkpatrick piece I linked to last night. The hook for the piece is a visit to Wichita, for many years considered ground zero for Christian right activism:

At the end of last month, [James] Dobson was the foremost among the roughly 50 Christian conservative organizers who declared they would support a third-party candidate if the nomination went to Giuliani, who is their greatest fear. Some even talk of McCain — once anathema to them — as a better bet.

I could see why they were worried. Among the evangelicals of suburban Wichita, I found that Giuliani was easily the most popular of the Republican candidates, even among churchgoers who knew his views on abortion and same-sex marriage. Some trusted him to fight Islamic radicalism; others praised his cleanup of New York.

Today:

The televangelist Pat Robertson endorsed Rudolph W. Giuliani today at the National Press Club in Washington, providing the former New York City Mayor with a big symbolic boost as he tries to allay the concerns of Christian conservatives about his candidacy.

The endorsement by Mr. Robertson could have some impact because of Mr. Robertson's clout through the Christian Broadcasting Network, where Mr. Giuliani can deliver a central argument of his candidacy: that the threat of terrorism is too important and should outweigh voters' concerns about his stand on abortion.

Now, Robertson is very clearly a member of the oldest of the old guard among Christian conservatives, and it's unclear how much weight his endorsement carries. But — the whole point of Kirkpatrick's piece, and several others I've read, is that the younger generation is less focused than the older guys on abortion and gay marriage as exclusive litmus tests for candidates. So this might be the canary in the coal mine. If even Robertson is willing cave on abortion and endorse Rudy, maybe some of the younger evangelicals will too. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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THE EVANGELICAL CRACKUP....I missed this when it came out a couple of weeks ago, but David Kirkpatrick, who covered evangelicals for the New York Times in 2004, went back to take another look at the evangelical community earlier this year to see where they stood now. Answer: on the verge of a crackup:

The backlash on the right against Bush and the war has emboldened some previously circumspect evangelical leaders to criticize the leadership of the Christian conservative political movement. "The quickness to arms, the quickness to invade, I think that caused a kind of desertion of what has been known as the Christian right," [Bill] Hybels, whose Willow Creek Association now includes 12,000 churches, told me over the summer. "People who might be called progressive evangelicals or centrist evangelicals are one stirring away from a real awakening."

....Today the president's support among evangelicals, still among his most loyal constituents, has crumbled. Once close to 90 percent, the president's approval rating among white evangelicals has fallen to a recent low below 45 percent, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. White evangelicals under 30 — the future of the church — were once Bush's biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders. And the dissatisfaction extends beyond Bush. For the first time in many years, white evangelical identification with the Republican Party has dipped below 50 percent, with the sharpest falloff again among the young, according to John C. Green, a senior fellow at Pew and an expert on religion and politics.

I've posted about this in passing several times in the past, and it continues to look like a real phenomenon. To a surprising extent, a considerable chunk of the evangelical community is rebelling against both the movement's obsessive focus solely on abortion and gay marriage as well as its exclusive association with the Republican Party. Kirkpatrick's piece is a nice look at where the fault lines of this crackup up are, and the near impossibility of any current GOP candidate inspiring the kind of devotion that George Bush got from evangelicals for the first few years of his presidency. It's worth reading the whole thing.

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THE GREAT DEPRESSION REALLY WAS GREAT!....Robert Samuelson looks on the bright side of the recession that he thinks is coming our way soon:

Recessions also have often-overlooked benefits. They dampen inflation. In weak markets, companies can't easily raise prices or workers' wages.

Stagnant wages are an "often-overlooked benefit" of recessions?

Kevin Drum 12:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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November 6, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GAMMA QUADRANT UPDATE....I'm curious: does anyone know where all the Ron Paul fans come from? Not only does my short little Ron Paul post from this afternoon have nearly 300 comments already, but within hours of posting it I had gotten over a dozen emails from Ron Paul fans who were outraged that I had insulted him ("His family is certainly upset as I'm sure he is as well," one emailer wrote, overestimating my influence by several orders of magnitude at least). Most of the emails were the usual collection of ALL CAPS and exclamation points that we've come to know and love on the intertubes, insisting that I'd see the light if only I'd open my mind and read what Dr. Paul had to say.

Well, sure. Whatever. But where do they come from? Did my post get linked at some important Ron Paul site? Do Ron Paul supporters have RSS feeds set up to keep them apprised of anyone anywhere who blogs about Ron Paul? Do I just have a lot of Ron Paul supporters among my usual readership?

For purposes of comparison, I've never gotten more than one or two emails at most when I've criticized any other candidate. Usually zero. So what's the deal? Where do they all come from?

Kevin Drum 11:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (233)

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SCHADENFREUDE ALERT....The New York Times reports today that a group of conservative authors, including Swift Boat nutball Jerome Corsi, is suing right-wing darling Regnery Publishing. The lead plaintiff is Richard Miniter, author of Shadow War: The Untold Story of How Bush Is Winning the War on Terror, who apparently got his hands on a royalty statement he wasn't supposed to see:

"It suddenly occurred to us that Regnery is making collectively jillions of dollars off of us and paying us a pittance." He added: "Why is Regnery acting like a Marxist cartoon of a capitalist company?"

....The authors, who say in the lawsuit that [Regnery's parent company] has been "unjustly enriched well in excess of one million dollars," are seeking unspecified damages. But Mr. Miniter said, "We're not looking for a payoff; we're looking for justice."

Well, we're all looking for justice, aren't we? But if a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, what do you call a conservative who's come face to face with the naked face of vertically integrated capitalism?

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HEALTH UPDATE....Good news! Turns out I'm right in the sweet spot:

The researchers used widely accepted federal definitions of "overweight" and "obesity" based on body mass index (BMI). A BMI of 25 to 30 classifies someone as overweight and above 30 as obese.

....The most surprising finding was that being overweight but not obese was associated only with excess mortality from diabetes and kidney disease — not cancer or heart disease. Moreover, the researchers found an apparent protective effect against all other causes of death, such as tuberculosis, emphysema, pneumonia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and injuries. An association between overweight and nearly 16,000 deaths from diabetes and kidney disease was overshadowed by a reduction of up to 133,000 deaths from all other non-cancer, non-heart disease causes.

Italics mine. My BMI is currently 28. In other words, perfect. I'll live to be a hundred unless the Ron Paul hordes from the previous post get to me first.

But I still ought to get more exercise.

Kevin Drum 5:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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RON PAUL, FRUITCAKE....Ron Paul raised a buttload of money yesterday. This doesn't really change anything, and everyone knows it, but I guess it's something to write about. So people are writing about it.

But look: can we stop pretending to be political infants, even if we happen to be bored this week? It's cheap and easy to take extreme, uncompromising positions when you have no actual chance of ever putting them into practice, so Paul's extreme, uncompromising positions really don't mean a thing. They don't reflect either well or badly on him. They're meaningless, and I wish grown adults who know better would stop pretending otherwise. Ditto for his "record breaking" fundraising day, which is just a function of (a) the growth of the internet as a political money machine and (b) the curious but well-known fact that technophiles are disproportionately libertarian.

But I will say this: if Ron Paul really is suddenly a "serious" candidate, then I expect him to start getting some pointed questions at the next debate. In the last Republican debate I saw, this noted truth-teller gave a strange and convoluted answer about his economic policies that the audience plainly didn't understand. Next time I expect to see some straight talk about how we should return to the gold standard and get rid of the Fed. This should be followed by a question about whether he supports the free coinage of silver at 16:1. Then some questions about the tin trust.

Seriously, folks. Can we all please grow up?

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YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR RESIDUALS....My friend Jay Jaroch, a writer for Bill Maher's HBO show Real Time, is braving the harsh 60-degree weather in Studio City today to man the picket lines in the WGA strike. He files this report:


Kevin, ever the champion of the working man — even when that work isn't the type that inspires John Mellencamp — thought it'd be fun to get a report back from the front lines of the writers' strike.

Now, I'm not on the actual front lines. Those are in the negotiating room. I was simply one of the thousands of writers in New York and Los Angeles who held a sign outside a studio yesterday.

But oh, hold a sign I did. And walk in a circle for four hours, which is probably the most exercise any of us have gotten in years. And we'll be out there again today, even though the news channels have already gotten everything they need — namely footage of us holding signs and walking in a circle, which they can then replay ad nauseam whenever they cover the story again. (Think terrorists and monkey bars.)

But it was a good day for two reasons: one, because turnout was incredible (3,000 strong in Los Angeles, though I'll skip the part about how it's virtually mandatory) and two, because there wasn't much in the way of chanting. And it's not because we're not serious. It's just that writers are a universally cynical bunch, and getting them to chant something that rhymes with "Hey-hey, ho-ho" is like sort of like trying to get Ann Coulter to eat. But that doesn't mean we don't want to be out there, or at least on strike. It just means we've got some fucking dignity left, for Christ's sake.

And who among us wasn't touched when regular Americans started rising up and joining us outside the studio? Okay, those were just fans of Dancing with the Stars getting in line, but still.

Now, if you're really interested in what the issues are....

....they're fairly lengthy, though not complex, and if I typed them all out here you'd fall asleep. Plus, you can get it all over at Arianna's site, which has been overwhelmed by the big regional news the same way Drudge goes batshit each time there's a hurricane anywhere near Florida. (I believe the scientific name is a "Killstorm.")

But if you're wondering why this should bother you, other than not being able to get your Conan-Colbert-Maher-Stewart-Letterman fix, or because the torture on 24 suddenly seems tired, instead of invigorating and spontaneous like it normally does, the reason is simple, and it's the same reason why Kevin is always telling you about CEOs and wages and the declining bargaining power of American workers: because corporations like this growing trend where they get to bring in more and more revenue and then give less and less to the people who helped generate it. And that sentence went on far too long.

So in a way, sort of, it's about those same pink houses Mellencamp sings about, just in a different city.

And I'd make a joke there, but I want my pal Andrew Sullivan to link to me.

I would add, however, that even facing the prospect of months without paychecks, as well as negotiations with six corporate giants and their virtually limitless pocketbooks, only 10% of WGA members didn't vote to authorize the strike. The stakes are that obvious. Unless you're the type of writer who is friends with Kathryn Jean Lopez, and then they're not, because you just emailed her this:

I am officially on strike. I was one of the ten percent who voted against it. Big mistake on the writers part. I spent last night watching football, The Next Iron Chef, and Law and Order re-runs. I can live without writers so I'm sure the rest of America can as well.

Which would almost make a tiny bit of sense if football hadn't been running against scripted television since the days of FDR and compensation for the re-runs of TV shows like Law & Order wasn't exactly what we're fighting over. But it has, and it is, which makes him/her look both silly and uninformed at the same time.

And he/she is a friend of Kathryn Jean Lopez. Who would have thought?

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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TURKEY UPDATE....What with everything going on in Pakistan, our woes in Turkey have fallen off the radar screen lately. But on Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with George Bush as scheduled to discuss PKK terrorism in northern Iraq and what the United States was prepared to do about it. After insisting on anonymity, here's what a "senior Bush administration official" had to say about the situation:

"We had some ideas. The Turks have had some ideas. The Iraqis have had some ideas. The Kurds have had some ideas," the official said.

Well OK then! Case closed.

Anyway, as you might guess from that statement, essentially nothing concrete came out of the meeting at all. Basically, we have no policy. If we get lucky, the PKK will lay low for a while and the whole thing will blow over. If we don't get lucky, someone somewhere will decide to provoke an incident and a couple brigades of Turkish troops will pour over the border into Iraq to the cheers of the Turkish public. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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PARTY OF THE RICH?....Michael Franc, the Heritage Foundation's Vice-President for Governmental Affairs, took to the pages of the Financial Times a couple of days ago to warn us that Democrats are becoming the party of the rich. Henry Farrell notes that Franc is, to put it generously, not being reality-based here. All sorts of data (here and here) shows that income is still a pretty good predictor of voting behavior and that the rich still vote for Republicans by a wide margin. In the 2004 election, for example, low-income voters opted for John Kerry by a margin of 63-36; high-income voters were a mirror image, voting for George Bush by a margin of 63-35.

And yet, I come not to bury Franc, but to praise him. Why? Because the hook for his op-ed piece is the observation that Senate Democrats "will not consider a plan to extract billions in extra taxes from mega-millionaire hedge fund managers." He's talking about the carried interest loophole here, which allows zillionaire hedge fund managers to pay taxes at half the rate they should. Leaving this loophole in place is disgraceful, and Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for not closing it pronto. Until they do, all I can say to Franc is: go get 'em. Maybe a right-wing hack can shame them into doing what we liberals apparently can't.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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THE GOLDEN WINGNUT AWARD....The Wingnut Contest is over and the votes have now been tallied by the prestigious accounting firm of Pollhost.com. So without further ado, the five winners of the Golden Wingnut Award are:

  1. John Hinderaker: "It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius...."

  2. Glenn Reynolds: "Maybe we should rise above the temptation to point out that claims of a 'quagmire' were wrong....Nah."

  3. Michelle Malkin: "The Defeatocrats Cheer"

  4. Ann Althouse: "Let's take a closer look at those breasts."

  5. Kim du Toit: "The Pussification of the Western Male"

Congratulations, wingnuts! And special congratulations to Power Line's John Hinderaker, who ran away with first place by a wide margin — and deservedly so. Also to Kim du Toit, who mounted a last second comeback against veteran wingers Jonah Goldberg and John Derbyshire to nab the final spot. It would be cool if I had a trophy or something to send to each one of the winners, but I'm afraid I don't. My little clipart creation will have to do instead. And since we're all about democracy and the graphical representation of data here at PA, the full results are below the fold in handy bar chart format. The complete list of 14 nominees is here.

A few closing comments are in order. First, several people pointed out that there were countless worthy contenders that got left off the list. I am not unsympathetic to these cries. But you know how it is. Deadlines are deadlines, and after I decided (after consultation with the panel of judges) to limit entries to one per author — well, we did the best we could. But yes, this and this and this deserved consideration. Maybe next year.

A number of conservatives were upset on the opposite score: what happened to the worst of the liberal blogosphere? Answer: get off your butts and create your own award, OK? The field is wide open for some enterprising winger to create a Golden Moonbat Award.

On a similar note, a few people were flustered by the definition of "wingnuttiest." That's understandable. After all, some of the nominees were breathtaking examples of warblogger paranoia; some were just humorously batshit insane; and some were merely unfortunate mistakes with no special ideological axe to grind. But in the immortal words of Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. And I trust my readers to know it when they see it too.

Finally, a personal note: We live in an age of celebrity, and a blogger who retired three years ago probably never had a serious chance of cracking the top five. Still, history must be served: when they write the dictionary definition of wingnuttery there's going to be a picture of Steven Den Beste beside the entry. So, since this is my contest, I hereby present SDB with a special judges award for lifetime achievement in transnational wingnuttery. They just don't make 'em like that anymore.

Kevin Drum 3:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (170)

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By: Kevin Drum

TIME'S UP....Deciding how long to support a faltering ally is a tough business. Genuinely tough. Think Carter and the Shah, Reagan and Marcos, Clinton and Yeltsin. But Joshua Kurlantzick says Bush and Musharraf is an easy call:

The time for mere condemnation is over. It's time for America to cut the cord on Musharraf and throw in entirely with the country's democratic forces. The Bush administration has repeatedly called for elections in Pakistan, and Musharraf has ignored it. The administration has funneled gargantuan sums of money to Pakistan — over $10 billion since the 9/11 attacks — and Musharraf has misspent that. Despite some initial, post-9/11 victories against extremists near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Musharraf has allowed radical movements in Pakistan to multiply, while stifling the change Pakistan truly needs: the development of a new generation of democratic-minded leaders that would challenge the generals and corrupt old politicians for power.

Read the rest. Fred Kaplan has a somewhat different take here.

Kevin Drum 1:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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THANKS, ARNOLD....A couple of months ago Ezra Klein wrote a piece for us explaining why universal healthcare is a problem that can't be effectively addressed at the state level. California is now demonstrating just how right he was:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday ordered all state departments to draft plans for deep spending cuts after receiving word that California's budget is plunging deeply into the red — largely because of the troubled housing market.

....The news is a major setback for the governor's other policy initiatives. His proposals — to pass legislation this year that would bring healthcare to all Californians and address the state's water problems — were already faltering in the Legislature. News of a massive looming deficit will make the proposals, both of which would require billions of dollars of new spending, politically less palatable to lawmakers.

Why are we in trouble now? It's not just because of the housing crisis: "When the economy improved nationwide several years ago, most states erased chronic deficits and began building rainy day funds. California did not. It continued to spend more money than it brought in."

Four years ago Arnold Schwarzenegger took office in the midst of a massive budget crisis after promising voters that he would end our "crazy deficit spending." In true Republican fashion, he did this by immediately reducing the state auto licensing fee by $4 billion a year and then insisting that we all approve $15 billion in bonds to paper over a shortfall that was now even more desperate than the one he inherited. The hope, apparently, was that nothing bad would ever happen to the economy and eventually we'd squeeze out from under the rock we were under.

I opposed the bonds at the time, and I've never regretted that vote since. Defeating the bonds would have caused immense fiscal pain, but it would also have forced Schwarzenegger and the legislature to actually fix our underlying problem by increasing taxes and reducing spending. Our nonpartisan legislative analyst made it clear from the beginning that Arnold's plan had no long-term chance of success, but he just flashed that million-dollar smile and went ahead with it anyway.

But gravity still pulls downward and reducing taxes still creates bigger deficits, not smaller ones. Now California has a massive deficit and tens of billions of dollars worth of bonds for our kids to pay off. And $16 billion of it — and counting — is due to the demagogic tax decrease that Arnold used to win office. Nice work, governor.

Kevin Drum 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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November 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORE HOOVERNOMICS....So I just get through speculating that the bursting of the housing bubble might be responsible for the growing number of people who trust Democrats more than Republicans to manage the economy, and what pops up on the front page of the LA Times? A story about the housing bubble turning Republicans into Independents and Democrats:

The national downturn in the housing market has arrived in Loudoun County, a once-largely rural area on the western fringes of Washington [D.C.] that has become one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States. In addition to the economic effect, it's stirring anxiety and discontent that have begun to change the climate in which people consider politics — especially some Republicans.

"I used to consider myself a Republican, but now I consider myself an independent," [Karla] Schroeder said.

The shift is not confined to one county in the mid-Atlantic region. Similar rumblings of discontent can be heard among GOP voters in fast-growing areas across the country that are being hit by the housing crunch, including parts of Florida and Nevada.

....Tom Slade, who helped build the Florida Republican Party and is a former state chairman, knows firsthand the anxieties stirred by the housing downturn, and he thinks the political fallout could be significant.

...."How deep, bad and big this monster will turn out to be is not clear yet, but it has the potential to turn wickedly mean," Slade said. "Who gets the biggest thumping is anyone's guess, but I would guess it would be the Republicans since we've had control of the executive branch."

The piece is mostly anecdotal, but interesting anyway. The housing bubble so far has been only a minor issue in the campaign, but I wonder if it has the potential to become a much bigger one if somebody decides to really take it on?

Kevin Drum 11:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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HOOVERNOMICS RIDES AGAIN....Jon Rauch notes that Gallup has been asking "which political party do you think will do a better job of keeping the country prosperous?" for over half a century, and that the Republican Party has now thoroughly lost the lead it gained during the Reagan years:

Just why is hard to say. Worries about economic insecurity, and the failure of the median household income (adjusted for inflation) to rise during the Bush years, undoubtedly played a part. Bush's personal unpopularity and the public's displaced anger over the Iraq war may also figure.

OK, but take a look at the chart below. What it shows is that as recently as 2004 Republicans were only slightly behind Democrats. On a historical basis they were slumping a little bit, but not by enough to get anyone excited.

Then, in 2006 and 2007 — bam! Democrats opened up a huge lead and now poll 20 points better than Republicans. So the question is, what happened in 2006?

That turns out to be a pretty tricky question. Nothing comes immediately to mind. Income inequality and income insecurity have been growing for decades; they didn't suddenly take off in 2006. Recessions have caused most of the spikes in the graph, but there was no recession in 2005 or 2006. It could be, as Rauch suggests, George Bush's personal unpopularity and general anger over Iraq that's at fault, but if that's the case it makes the question nothing more than a proxy for the "right direction/wrong direction" question.

So what is it? General disgust with the Republican Party might be part of it, but if I had to toss out a wild guess I'd say a bigger reason is the bursting of the housing bubble, which started in 2006 and continued through 2007. It's also possible — though I wouldn't want to put money on this — that Bush's Social Security fiasco hurt him. It's not just that people didn't want Republicans taking risks with their Social Security checks, but that Republicans were doing it at the same time that they weren't doing anything about the housing meltdown.

Anyway, just a guess. Obviously lots of things happened in 2005 and 2006, but it's not clear which of them would suddenly cause a huge change in perceptions about which party can manage the economy better. Am I missing anything obvious?

Kevin Drum 7:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE GOLDEN WINGNUT AWARD....The polls close at midnight, so don't forget to vote for your favorite wingnut! It's still a tight race. Click here to read the nominees and then vote.

Kevin Drum 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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HILLARY'S ENERGY PLAN....I see that Hillary Clinton has finally released her long awaited climate and energy plan. Dave Roberts says: "It is thoughtful, comprehensive, and though disappointingly conventional in a few areas, inspiringly bold in others....I give the plan an A overall."

The question uppermost on my mind was whether HRC would support either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade plan, since this is frankly the only part of the standard liberal agenda on energy that's really very risky to endorse. I'm told that both are essentially the same thing in practice, so it's no surprise that the leading candidates, now including Hillary, have all chosen the cap-and-trade route, which raises energy prices but doesn't include the dread word "taxes." The upside of this, I think, is that a properly designed cap-and-trade plan actually ought to be better than a carbon tax. The downside is that one has to trust that the plan will be properly designed, which is sort of a sucker bet, isn't it?

Anyway, Dave has the details in condensed, reader-friendly format over at Grist. The next step is for someone to compare the plans from the three leading Dems to see if there are really any significant differences in their approaches. My first pass suggests some modest differences in emphasis, but that's about it. More later as I dive into the details.

Kevin Drum 3:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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TROUBLE IN RIVER CITI....Atrios comments on the latest estimate of "Level 3" assets owned by Citigroup. That is, assets that no one really knows how to value:

I guess the point is that the inability to put reasonable estimates on the value of this stuff isn't simply due to an inability to account for them accurately due to the fact that they don't trade enough to have a genuine market price. Whoever loaded up on these piles of shit should have some knowledge of just what is contained in them....Unless, of course, no one has any clue what these pieces of paper represent. And that seems to be where we are.

Speaking (as usual) from a position of profound ignorance about this stuff, this still doesn't make sense. I assume these Level 3 assets are primarily the equity tranches of the various CDOs and SIVs put together by Citi over the past few years — and, yes, these are close to impossible to value because so much of their value is based on computer-driven modeling of how all the underlying assets interact with each other.

But the whole point of CDOs and SIVs in the first place is that some portfolio manager collects a bunch of assets together into a single vehicle and then puts the entire vehicle on the market. So if push comes to shove, the CDO can always be unbundled and the underlying assets put back on the market individually. It might not be pretty, but it would give us a pretty firm idea of what they were really worth.

And that seems to be the problem: not that this stuff can't be valued, but the almost dead certainty that, in fact, the underlying assets aren't worth much at all. And if the CDOs and SIVs were unraveled, and marked to market, Citi would be close to bankrupt. Maybe a few other banks as well.

Or so I'd guess. Certainly one thing that makes me even more nervous about all this than I otherwise would be is that even people who are genuine experts don't really seem to understand this much better than me. They're all mystified too. How can that be?

Kevin Drum 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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MALIKI: I'VE DONE ENOUGH....Marc Lynch listened to a speech an interview on al-Arabiya with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Friday and came away discouraged. Apparently Maliki announced that there was no civil war in Iraq — or even any real sectarian conflict — and therefore no need for the Shiite majority to waste time making any further concessions to the Sunni minority. The process of political reconciliation is dead because, as far as Maliki is concerned, it's already happened:

Leave aside the various dubious claims which he makes....Focus intead on the political implications of what he's saying: this amounts to a public declaration by Maliki that there will be no further efforts to achieve political reconciliation. Don't expect any more national reconciliation in the form of "legislation" or "benchmarks", Maliki is signaling. The "achievements" of the various tribal awakenings absolve the national government of any further responsibility — and, pace the Weekly Standard — are more important than mere legislative agreements anyway.

In other words, Maliki is gleefully hoisting the United States on its own bottom-up reconciliation petard. In order to sell the surge to Congress, the Bush team decided to focus on positive developments at the local level and downgrade the significance of the deadlocked national political process. Evidently, Maliki took notes.

So what happens now? It's becoming plainer and plainer over time that Maliki and the major Shiite parties aren't going to allow Sunnis any real political power. Even Ryan Crocker seems to admit as much. But the Sunnis are gaining military and police power, and it's inevitable that at some point either Maliki is going to stop cooperating with the various "awakenings" that are empowering the Sunni tribes or else that the awakened Sunnis are going to get tired of being marginalized and go after Maliki. Either option leads in the same direction: a reignited civil war.

There is very little the United States can do about this. Right now we're effectively arming both sides in a civil war, which is most likely buying us temporary peace in return for a bigger, more deadly civil war sometime down the road. That's what our next president has to look forward to.

Kevin Drum 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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PAKISTAN....Over at the Atlantic, Joshua Hammer describes a CSIS exercise a few months ago that posited an incident in Pakistan leading to an apparent coup attempt. What should the U.S. do in such a case?

At this point, the policy makers broke into groups and tried to come up with a strategy to deal with the apparent change of leadership. But this proved difficult: The groups were unable to resolve critical questions with confidence. Though most agreed that the military would continue running the show, as it has for 33 of the last 60 years, there was widespread concern over whether the new army brass would likely be pro-American, anti-American, or something in between. There was also no consensus on whether the military — with Musharraf out of the picture — could hold the country.

I'd say that perfectly describes the situation: nobody really knows what to do or what might happen next if we do it. The biggest question, as always, is whether Pervez Musharraf is really holding back a tide of Islamist sentiment in the world's most unstable nuclear state, as he frequently claims, or not. Hammer continues:

Pervez Hoodbhoy, chairman of the Quaid-e-Azam University physics department, told me that the university has been "taken over" by Islamist fervor — more hijabs in the classrooms, more prayer, and "no bookstores, but three mosques with a fourth under construction" on campus. Hoodbhoy, a highly regarded nuclear physicist and a critic of military rule, told me that an Islamist takeover of the country, either by outright domination of the electoral process or in conjunction with a radical Islamist general, "is a real possibility."

Yet despite their clout in parliament and their seeming strength on the street, the Islamists are not widely popular: Their parties won only 11 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections (gerrymandering gave them a share of seats far greater than their numbers). Even in their stronghold, the North-West Frontier Province, they polled only 26 percent. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the MMA's growth is its abysmal record of governance: In the North-West Frontier Province, which the alliance controls, social services are disintegrating. Unless anti-Western sentiment reaches sustained and unprecedented levels, the Islamists seem highly unlikely to muster enough votes to gain control of parliament in the next decade.

Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole suggests that the Islamist movement in Pakistan isn't really very impressive, but adds that events could change that: "What is really significant, however, is that Qazi Hussain [the leader of the fundamentalist Jamaat-i Islami] is the only major party leader openly calling for mass resistance against Musharraf, a stance which will help the popularity of his party even if (as seems likely) he winds up in jail over it."

And now a question for the masses. A couple of years ago I looked around for some good sites about Pakistan and came away empty handed. (By "good," I mean something that provides perspective beyond what I can get from mainstream news sources.) The basic problem was that every site I found seemed to have a major axe to grind, and since I don't have a strong position myself it was impossible to judge which axe grinders to listen to. So: any suggestions? Leave 'em in comments if you know of a go-to site.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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STILL BLOGGING....Just a quick note: since this blog is new media, and I don't get residuals from anybody anyway, I'm not on strike today. Blogging will continue normally. You may all breathe a sigh of relief now.

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WINGNUT CONTEST REMINDER....If you haven't already, don't forget to vote in our contest to name the wingnuttiest blog posts of all time! We have 15,000 votes so far, but I'm going to keep the contest open one more day so that my weekday readers have a chance to weigh in too. It's a trip down warblogger memory lane for longtime blogosphere denizens and an educational experience for newer ones.

Voting closes Monday at midnight, so head over now, read the 14 nominees, and cast your vote. Just scroll down a few posts or click here to go straight to the contest.

Kevin Drum 1:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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STATE OF DEPENDENCY....Hey, whatever happened to the Bridge to Nowhere? You remember: the $229 million piece of pork that Senator Ted Stevens earmarked in 2005 for a bridge across the Tongass Narrows that was intended to link the town of Ketchikan (pop. 8,000) to its airport on Gravina Island.

Well, it got scrapped. A couple of months ago Alaska's new governor killed the project. But in the November issue of the Monthly, Alaskan journalist Charles Homans says there's much more to the story:

To reduce the Bridge to Nowhere to a punch line, however, is to miss an important point. Life on the Last Frontier is complicated and expensive, and you pay for it.

....Simply put, Alaska has made a habit of transferring its operating costs to the federal government. The state pulls out nearly two times as much money as it pitches in to the Treasury, a drain that looks especially bad in light of the state's fiscal reality. Today, Alaska enjoys a healthy budget surplus, and it sits on a Permanent Fund of more than $39 billion. It also refuses to levy sales or income taxes on its citizens. In a state that fails to pull its weight, the Bridge to Nowhere is just an especially weighty example.

....In the late 1990s, people began to refer to a problem called the "Alaska Disconnect": the high expectations Alaskans continued to have of government even as they failed to pay in properly. This fiscal dissonance was abetted by Stevens's largesse, but ultimately it wasn't his fault. The problem had been triggered the moment Alaska struck it rich with oil. Psychologically, it had been cemented with the fateful 1980 decision to abolish the income tax.

Read the whole thing to learn how Alaska turned into America's biggest basket case. And while you're at it, take a trip down memory lane with "Alaska, GOP Welfare State," from our July/August 2005 issue. It's all about Ted Stevens, no-bid contracts, Alaskan tribal corporations, and federal loopholes big enough to drive a cruise ship through.

Kevin Drum 1:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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November 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DREAMING OF CHAOS....From the Washington Post today:

For the first time in nearly 30 years, there is no breakaway front-runner for the Republican nomination as the first votes of Campaign 2008 loom, and a new Washington Post-ABC News poll underscores how open the GOP race remains.

....Not since 1979 has the leading Republican candidate had less than 40 percent support in national polls in the November heading into an election year.

I know I'm dreaming and it's not going to happen, but I would so love to see next year's primary season produce a brokered convention that ended up in brutal internecine warfare between the Republican Party's sane and insane wings. On national TV. Sort of like 1968 except with shorter hair. Wouldn't that be great?

Kevin Drum 9:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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GOD AND MAMMON, U.S. VERSION....A couple of weeks ago I posted a chart from a Pew global survey showing that the more religious a country is, the poorer it is. Is the same true for U.S. states? Andrew Gelman of Columbia University crunched some numbers and says the answer is yes. His data is at the right, along with an eyeball trendline that I tossed in on a whim. (In other words, don't blame him for the trendline. He just plotted the data.)

Interestingly, there appears to be no correlation between income and religiosity within states. Religious states are less wealthy in aggregate, but within each state rich people are no more or less likely to be religious than poorer people. Make of this what you will.

Kevin Drum 8:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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OBAMA THE BOLD?....I'm not really in favor of raising the cap on payroll taxes unless the increase is scheduled to start at least ten years in the future. That caveat aside, Mark Kleiman makes a decent case that it's time to ditch the "Obama is running an excessively cautious campaign" meme. I'm 80% convinced.

Kevin Drum 12:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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November 3, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

ALL-TIME WINGNUTTIEST BLOG POST CONTEST....While the rest of the blogosphere concerns itself with the worthy task of choosing the all-time best blog posts, I'm keeping my focus where it belongs: on the all-time worst blog posts. And thanks to help from my commenters, plus commenters over at FDL and John Cole's place, we now have an official list of nominees.

A note on methodology: Several prose stylings that seem like they ought to be on the ballot missed out because intensive research by the PA staff determined that they weren't actually blog posts. "Objectively pro-terrorist" deserves recognition, for example, but it came from a Michael Kelly column, not a blog post. Ditto for "The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead — and may well mount a fifth column," which Andrew Sullivan wrote for the Sunday Times, not his blog. Or John Derbyshire's musings on women over the age of 20. And "Lucky Duckies" was a Wall Street Journal editorial. Since this contest is all about blog wingnuttery, these contenders were sadly but firmly disqualified.

But why focus on the all-time worst in the wingnut blogosphere anyway? Isn't that mean? What's driving this besides sheer bloody-mindedness?

History, that's what. A century from now, even the very best blog posts will be long forgotten. Let's face it: they aren't that good. But bad blog posts will still be every bit as bad as they were on the day they were spawned. They'll endure. So really, we're doing this for the children. And the grandchildren.

The fourteen finalists for the worst, most embarrassing, most risible wingnut blog posts of all time are listed below. You can vote for up to five. So take a trip down memory lane and then vote for your favorites. Remember: It's your civic duty.

UPDATE: Voting is now finished. Thanks to one and all. The final five winners are announced here.

All-Time Wingnuttiest Blog Post Contest
(Choose up to 5)
Ann Althouse: "Let's take a closer look at those breasts."
Steven Den Beste (shortly before the Iraq war started): "It's the waiting that wears."
(Cut and paste the link to read the post: http://denbeste.nu/cd_log_entries/2003/03/Itsthewaiting.shtml)
John Derbyshire (after the Virginia Tech shootings): "Where was the spirit of self-defense here?....It's not like this was Rambo, hosing the place down with automatic weapons."
Ben Domenech: "Pachyderms in the Mist"
Kim du Toit: "The Pussification of the Western Male"
Pam "Atlas Shrugs" Geller: "My Sharia!"
Jonah Goldberg (before Katrina): "Attn: Superdome Residents....grow gills...."
Robert Hahn: "I will suggest that President Bush understands money better than any President we have ever had."
Hugh Hewitt: "I'm sitting in the Empire State Building...."
John Hinderaker: "It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius...."
Michelle Malkin: "The Defeatocrats Cheer"
Glenn Reynolds: "Maybe we should rise above the temptation to point out that claims of a 'quagmire' were wrong....Nah."
Lee Siegel: "The Origins of Blogofascism"
Bill Whittle (after Katrina): "Tribes"
  
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Kevin Drum 6:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (222)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SECONDARY CONVERSATION....The "gender card" accusation against Hillary Clinton following Tuesday night's debate seemed like pretty weak tea to me, but Garance Franke-Ruta made an interesting comment yesterday about the broader topic:

The primary political conversation that occurs in public is led by men, who still make up more than 80 percent of Congress, op-ed page writers, political talk-show guests, etc. But that doesn't mean women don't have any opinions or have nothing to say. What women have instead of a public conversation is what I've come to think of as "the secondary conversation" — an ongoing conversation with other women, in private, where they feel they can speak freely about their lives and their place in the world without fear of being penalized or stigmatized for saying what they actually think. Clinton to date has been a master of dog-whistle politics in evoking the common tropes of that secondary conversation without making it too apparent or jarring to her male listeners.

The only reason we're talking about this now, Garance says, is that Hillary's latest effort was slightly less subtle than usual, which made it "jarring to both women adept in the art of deflecting attention from their difference and men used to pretending the whole gender-inequality problem has been solved."

Maybe so! But that would make a fascinating blog post or magazine article, wouldn't it? We're all used to thinking of coded appeals to evangelicals or racists, but not to women. Those usually seem more overt, like appeals to environmentalists or tax cutters. So how about a few examples? I'd be fascinated to find out when and where Hillary has made these dog whistle appeals before, unbeknownst to the rest of us.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (124)

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RECRUITING....The Army continues to have serious recruiting problems. One guess about the reason why. Blue Girl has the details.

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MAKING MONEY THE OLD FASHIONED WAY....Big Sugar™ spends $1.5 million to gain $100 million per year in federal subsidies. That's an ROI of 6,700%. Ken Lay would be envious.

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MISCELLANEOUS CHARTS....The Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report a couple of days ago showing that so far during the 2008 campaign season, Democrats have gotten more favorable coverage than Republicans. Now, maybe you believe this and maybe you don't, but what caught my eye was the reason Democrats got such favorable coverage. Two words: Barack Obama. The chart on the right shows the results for each of the six leading candidates, and Obama's coverage is almost stratospherically laudatory. So I grabbed the raw data and removed Obama from the analysis entirely to see what would happen. Answer: the positive vs. negative coverage was virtually identical for Democrats and Republicans.

Bottom line: the press isn't in love with Democrats, it's in love with Barack Obama.

Tonight's second chart comes from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which released a report Wednesday telling us that the key to success for the Democratic Party was unmarried women. Page after page presents evidence that they vote more heavily for Democrats than practically any other group and could produce huge victory margins in the future if we just addressed their issues better and got them out to vote.

Now, I'm already predisposed to believe this because my sister belongs to this demographic and she's always complaining about how she's completely ignored during campaign season. And she's right. There are always a million and one proposals for helping "families," but nothing aimed at unmarried women.

So fine. Except for one thing. Take a look at the chart on the right, which is practically the only place in the entire report where you can see this. It's true that 66% of unmarried women vote for Democrats, but by extrapolation a little more than 62% of unmarried men also vote for Democrats. That's not really much of a difference. So why not just focus on the unmarried demographic as a whole, which is also heavily biased in favor of Dems but is also twice as big?

Kevin Drum 1:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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November 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

STATE OF FEAR....There's been a huge decline in foreign tourism since 9/11, and tourism promoter Geoff Freeman says he knows why: "It is the perception around the world that travelers aren't welcome," he says. "Travelers around the world feel the US entry experience is among the world's worst." Andrew Sullivan comments:

It is by far the biggest change I have experienced in my quarter century living in America....Getting any kind of visa can be a nightmare of bureaucracy; being finger-printed and treated like a criminal is the first actual experience many foreigners have of entering the US, and the process of getting through customs and immigration can be, even in completely incident-free circumstances, frightening. My elderly mother arrived for my wedding and started sobbing in my arms after the rough treatment she had received from airport security....When Bush goes, the country's reputation will instantly soar (unless he's succeeded by Giuliani, in which case, we're headed for pariah status). But unless we get a grip on the police state atmosphere at the legal border, the opinion of mankind with respect to America will only continue to worsen.

Another horror story here. Security expert Bruce Schneier has some additional comments on the bigger picture.

Kevin Drum 8:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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THE FOREIGN SERVICE REBELLION....The State Department revolt against compulsory postings to Baghdad has mostly focused on the fact that people are being asked to serve in a dangerous war zone. But I think Charles Crain gets closer to the real issue in this Time magazine piece:

The most demoralizing aspect of the violence may not be the physical risk, but rather the isolation and sense of futility the violence engenders. Most diplomats leave the Green Zone only rarely, and never simply to socialize with ordinary Iraqis or explore the city.

....Most discouraging of all, the danger and discomfort do not seem to be in service of a successful strategy. [Jack] Croddy, the veteran diplomat, implied that the shortage of volunteers was a function of diplomats not believing in the American mission in Iraq. It's a fair point. Violence has dropped in recent months, but there has been little substantive progress on key issues from disarming Shi'ite militias to deciding how to distribute the nation's oil revenue. As the Bush Administration ratchets up its rhetoric against Iran it is American diplomats who must deal personally with Shi'ite politicians, who have closer ties to Tehran than to Washington.

Foreign service diplomats routinely serve in backwater ratholes, and dangerous postings are often part of the bargain too. But when you combine that with a setting in which there's literally almost nothing they can accomplish, a revolt is hardly surprising.

I'd add one other thing, too. As near as I can tell, Ryan Crocker is well-liked and highly respected. If even he can't manage to attract enough people to fill up all the open slots in Iraq — especially when a Baghdad posting also offers higher pay, the career boost of serving in a critical embassy, and a choice of assignments after your hitch is up — then service in the Green Zone must be a rathole squared. Apparently, there's just no one left who thinks there's any chance of making serious political or diplomatic progress there.

Kevin Drum 4:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Domino spent nearly the entire day yesterday curled up in a (very unphotogenic) little black ball upstairs, which meant that we were very close to having Domino-free Friday catblogging today. In a pinch, I was planning to replace her with a picture of a lovely, perfect yellow rose that's blooming in our garden at the moment — an appropriate choice, as Drum trivia experts know, because "The Yellow Rose of Texas" was the music playing at St. Mary's Hospital at the moment I was born.

But at the last minute Domino appeared downstairs and started carousing around, growling at Inkblot, and chasing after nonexistent ethereal creatures. When she got tired of all that she decided to settle down on Marian's lap, which produced the very rare lapblogging photo you see here. I even sort of got permission to post it. I wasn't forbidden to post it, anyway, which is good enough for me.

Inkblot, for some reason, has become much more enamored of my desk lately, and tends to spend an hour or so there every morning. Sometimes this is just because he feels like it, other times it's because he wants me to get up and give him possession of the desk chair. The only downside is that sometime he turns around and rests his head on the phone, and then jumps out of his fur when it rings. But I'm sure he'll get used to it soon. Maybe I need to get him his own iPhone.

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By: Kevin Drum

LIST MANIA....The Telegraph's list of the most influential liberals and conservatives in America is now complete, and the #1 most influential conservative is.....Rudy Giuliani! Surprise! James Joyner calls the list "bizarre," and maybe it is. Putting Dick Cheney ahead of George Bush strikes me as merely common sense, but Condi Rice? That's a little harder to justify. And Matt Drudge at #3? Is the Drudge Report really that influential in the conservative community? Personally, I'd switch his ranking with Paul Gigot's.

But hell, what do I know about conservatives? Let's take a look at the liberal list, where the #1 most influential liberal is....Bill Clinton! Hillary clocks in at #4. Ouch. I thought this was supposed to a forward looking list?

But congratulations to blogosphere titan Markos Moulitsas, who, at #12, is officially more influential among liberals than Rahm Emanuel, George Soros, and Paul Krugman. (But behind Evan Bayh. Evan Bayh?)

And how did the massively influential power brokers of the blogosphere do in general? Six out of 200, that's how. The Telegraph chose three liberals: Markos (#12), Arianna Huffington (#16), and Jerome Armstrong (#62). And three conservatives: Andrew Sullivan (#33), Erick Erikson (#68), and Michelle Malkin (#93). But they blew it. Atrios is more influential than any of them except Markos. He should have been on the list too.

Among liberals, women made up 6.5 of the top 20. Among conservatives they were 2 of 20.

Anyway, fun for the whole family. My big problem with the Telegraph's rankings, though, is that I've heard of everyone in the top 40 or 50 on both lists. Frankly, there should have been at least half a dozen shadowy, media-shy, power broker types who have immense influence but that most of us have never heard of. Right? So where are they?

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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STICKS AND CARROTS....In an interview with the New York Times yesterday, Barack Obama spelled out his Iran strategy in a little more detail than he has before. He promised "aggressive personal diplomacy" and then added this:

Making clear that he planned to talk to Iran without preconditions, Mr. Obama emphasized further that "changes in behavior" by Iran could possibly be rewarded with membership in the World Trade Organization, other economic benefits and security guarantees.

"We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith," he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. "I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hellbent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior."

This is good stuff, and I'm all in favor of it. But as a small point, I've long wondered if this kind of language is really helpful. When you talk about "rewarding" a country, or "expecting" certain things, or offering "sticks and carrots," do your words work against your intentions? It's one thing to offer a grand bargain of some kind, but when you publicly refer to it as "sticks and carrots" aren't you just making it harder for the other side to accept it? People and countries, after all, are less likely to accept a deal if they think they're being crudely manipulated like a wayward teenager given inducements to clean up his room.

This is not a big deal, and not a criticism specifically of Obama. This kind of language gets used by virtually everybody. But if you've decided to pursue the aggressive diplomacy route as a break from the past, it seems like it might be worthwhile to go ahead and modify your language as a break from the past as well.

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BLING....Ezra Klein meditates on why the iPod generation (hey! another synonym for "20-somethings"!) doesn't seem to be politically motivated to do anything about economic insecurity:

My sense is that economic status has been cleaved free of economic security. So the sort of goods that signal affluence — iPods and iPhones and laptop computers and plasma televisions — are becoming much cheaper, more broadly accessible, and thus more widely owned. Lots of people, particularly young people, can thus claim economic status. The trappings of our wealth are all around us.

....Meanwhile, from where I sit, the American Dream is a pretty weak force. White picket fences aren't the culturally transmitted vision of prosperity. Electronics are. Awesome stuff is. We're seeking goods, not security. And we can buy goods. Which makes us feel prosperous. And if you feel prosperous, if you consider yourself affluent, you can't merge that self-conception with economic insecurity, and thus it's hard to consider yourself part of a coalition in need of economic reform, or more advantageous public policy. By offering status without security, folks lose the class discontent that would turn them into a constituency for the security. And so they don't get it.

Hmmm. I'm trying to figure out if I think there's something to this.

I guess I'm not sure that all the electronic doodads Ezra is talking about have really taken the place of a house in the suburbs. My guess is that they've mostly just taken the place of other doodads that used to signal status. Maybe it used to be whitewall tires or a leather briefcase or a European vacation (a status good that's long since become a commodity), and now it's an iPod or a DSL connection or an xBox. It's not that we have more non-house status markers than our parents and grandparents did, just that we have different ones.

But I'm not sure about that. Maybe we do have more. Or, more to the point, if the urban hipster crowd has flatly given up on the prospect of ever owning a home, maybe they simply have more money for doodads. After all, there's no point in socking away money for a down payment if you're never going to be able to use it. So why not spend that dough on a copy of Halo 3 instead?

But then....well, it turns out that home ownership is higher today than it was 30 or 50 years ago, subprime crisis or not. So homeownership is hardly a dying dream. Though it sure seems to be among young people living in cities, doesn't it?

I dunno. For now, I'm going to go with (a) we have different status doodads today, not more status doodads, and (b) yeah, housing in crowded urban centers is a problem.

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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MORE VAT....Matt Yglesias adds his voice to the tsunami of blogospheric support for a VAT to pay for universal healthcare, and then says:

All-in-all, I think this is an area where progressive politicians are going to need to figure out a way to get over their taxophobia. The sort of things liberals want to see happen require money, and that's a real political problem. Trying to get around the need to raise this money through taxes — using various kinds of regulatory mandates and "fees" — may work pretty well when you're only talking about a small amount of money, but when big bucks come into play it's probably worth coming up with something straightforward, efficient, and comprehensible and just having the fight.

I agree, but this actually demonstrates one of the problems with a VAT: it's a brand new tax, not just an increase in an old tax, and it isn't remotely politically feasible to create a new tax unless it's being used to raise a considerable amount of money for a big new program. This in turn means that it only really makes sense if it's being used to fund a genuine, single-payerish national healthcare program.

But of course, that's not what's on offer right now, and it's increasingly looking like that's not how we'll ever get universal healthcare. What we'll get instead is a bunch of small, incremental steps that, over time, will add up to something that's close to a universal program. The funding will be kludged together at each step of the way, so 20 years from now we'll have a universal system cobbled together from a bunch of little initiatives mated with funding that's likewise jury-rigged from a wide variety of minuscule incremental tax measures.

Which is too bad, since other countries have enough experience with this kind of thing that it's quite possible to design a reasonably sensible program that gets the funding, the coverage, the cost controls, and the administrative apparatus pretty close to correct in a single try. Won't happen, though, and no one will take on the risk of advocating for a VAT for the sake of funding some minor add-on to our current system.

So, anyway, that's the downside of a VAT: it only makes sense if you have the political courage and will to pass a big new universal healthcare system in the first place. That doesn't look very likely from where I sit.

On the other hand, there's one criticism of a VAT (mostly from conservatives) that I've never understood: the charge that it's a "stealth tax." Liberal I may be, but I'm opposed to invisible taxes too. I think people should know how much they're paying in taxes (this is a democracy, after all), and that this acts as a salutary brake on government inefficiency. But why is a VAT a stealth tax? Some of it is payed directly by businesses, which means the business community is well aware of it, and some of it is paid at the final point of purchase, which means consumers are aware of it. In Canada and Europe, I've never met anyone who didn't know exactly what the current VAT rate was, and who didn't complain about it loudly given half a chance. If a VAT is stealthy, so is the U.S. Marine Corps.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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WALL STREET STILL UNHAPPY....Employment is up smartly, but Wall Street still doesn't care. Is this because of the old high employment = tight job market = wage growth = inflation = higher interest rate cretinism that infests our economic elites? Or are the problems in the credit market even worse than us little people realize? Hmmm.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE KAREN HUGHES MYSTERY....Fred Kaplan notes that Karen Hughes is leaving her post as America's top public diplomat with an air of "farce and mystery":

But it is the mysteries that are murkier. Why was Karen Hughes — this hard-headed but provincial Texan with no experience in foreign affairs and only a smattering of irrelevant Spanish — handed the job of repairing America's image in the Muslim world? And, with just over a year to go in his presidency, why is this avid Bush loyalist leaving now?

This latter question is at least intriguing and perhaps ominous.

Nickel summary: she gave up. Full answer at the link.

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RE-EXAMINING GDP....Sure, consumer spending is down a bit, but GDP rose 3.9% last quarter and the Fed cut interest rates yesterday. So why is Wall Street apparently in such a panic?

Part of the reason is that credit markets are still in turmoil and earnings reports have been weak. But it might also be because no one really believes that GDP increased 3.9%. Barry Ritholtz says it's a mirage, caused by a huge decrease in the inflation component of the GDP calculation that's more a technical artifact than a real number. Plug in a more reasonable estimate and real GDP grew by only about 2%. Rex Nutting of MarketWatch explains what happened here.

I'm sort of agnostic about this. There are always little gotchas deep in the bowels of the national accounts numbers, and it's never clear just how meaningful they are. But this one seems more interesting than usual, and it's certainly unsustainable. If the inflation number makes up its lost ground next quarter, economic growth could look grim indeed.

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November 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FUN WITH HISTORY....What are the five best blog posts of all time? Brad DeLong lists his five nominees here, and Dan Drezner lists his here.

But today, D at Lawyers, Guns and Money has a post up about Kim DuToit's 2003 classic "The Pussification of the Western Male," and it strikes me that maybe we also need a list of the five worst blog posts of all time. Or maybe even ten.

I don't really have the memory for this kind of thing, so what do you say, commenters? The nominees, I think, shouldn't simply be the stupidest or most objectionable posts of all time, but should have a certain heft to them. Something where the author is really, seriously striving to make an especially moronic point. Trawling through Donald Luskin's archives would probably yield some paydirt. Or, for example, I recall an old Steven den Beste post where he spent a couple thousand words concluding that, yes, we could kick France's ass if it came to a shooting war. That's the kind of thing we're after.

Nominees?

(And no, there's really no need to nominate anything I've written, thankyouverymuch.)

UPDATE: Here are a few nominees, starting with the two I mentioned in the post and adding some from comments:

  1. Kim du Toit: "The Pussification of the Western Male."

  2. Steven Den Beste: "More French speculation." Or maybe Steven Den Beste: "It's the waiting that wears." (You'll have to cut and paste the URLs if you want to read the posts. Den Beste doesn't allow links from this site, and I can't say that I blame him, really.)

  3. Michelle Malkin: "The Defeatocrats Cheer."

  4. John Hinderaker: "A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius."

  5. Jonah Goldberg: "ATTN: SUPERDOME RESIDENTS....grow gills...."

  6. Hugh Hewitt: "I'm sitting in the Empire State Building." (Not actually a blog post, granted, but who cares?)

Nominations are still open, of course.

Kevin Drum 9:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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A QUESTION FOR THE ROCKET SCIENTISTS....Every couple of weeks I take a whack at trying to understand what Collateralized Debt Obligations and Structured Investment Vehicles really are. My latest take is that they're basically ways to game the credit rating agencies (a game the agencies were none too eager to stop, as it turns out). Is that about right?

UPDATE: OK, here's what I mean by this. Warning: abysmal ignorance about to be displayed.

Basically, the whole selling point of a CDO is that its risk-adjusted return is higher than the risk-adjusted return of its underlying parts — i.e., that you've modeled the CDO's diversification or correlation or something better than Moody's has, and it will thus yield a bit more than you'd normally expect based on the CDO's rating.

Since the rated tranches are pretty straightforward, this mostly depends on convincing the world (and the rating agencies) that the small unrated tranche doesn't affect the riskiness of the rated tranches by very much. Not enough to affect their stated ratings, anyway.

But in the long run, this can't work. If you're right, then eventually everyone else's models will catch up and the yield of the securities in the unrated tranche will go down, thus eliminating the pooling advantage claimed by the CDO in the first place. If you're wrong, then the CDO goes bust. The game only continues if you can consistently value the unrated tranche more accurately than anyone else, including the rating agencies. But how many people can actually do that?

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THE BUTCHER'S REVENGE....If we really did kill all the lawyers, who would be left to run for president? Answer here.

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DRIVIN'....Sure, this is all true, but the real reason stick shifts are superior to automatics is that they keep you from yapping on your cell phone's handset while driving around the city. Unless you have a major league death wish, of course.

Sigh. My current car is an automatic. First time ever. It might have been the right choice, but I miss shifting. My next car will either be a stick or an electric. It depends on whether fun or coolness wins out.

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15 MONTHS TO GO....How the mighty have fallen: In the Telegraph's list of America's most influential conservatives, George Bush ranks a meager 21st, barely higher than Christopher Hitchens. Here's the explanation:

The short answer: the list is about the future rather than the past....we believe Bush will fade into relative obscurity after 2009.

The announcement of the departure of Karen Hughes from the Bush administration yesterday was laden with symbolism. She and Karl Rove represented a collective alter ego for Bush before 2000 and in the early days of his presidency. Now they are gone, along with Dan Bartlett, Don Evans, Alberto Gonzales, Joe Allbaugh and the rest of the Texas posse that rode into town. Bush is alone and isolated.

....In just over three months, Republicans will choose a presidential nominee who will become the de facto leader of the party and, by extension, of US conservatism. In a bid to attract centrist voters, he — whether it be Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain or Fred Thompson — will rush to distance himself from Bush.

By this time next year, many American conservatives may be asking: "George W. who?"

Sic transit etc. Two comments, though. First, it couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. Second, don't let conservatives get away with "distancing" themselves from Bush. They all loved him when he was riding high, and they'd love him still if he weren't polling in Richard Nixon territory. But his lousy numbers are mostly because he's stuck with policies that conservatives all hailed as visionary a mere couple of years ago. So here's the new Pottery Barn rule: they broke him, they bought him. Like it or not, he's your baby.

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DRAWING RESULTS....The winner of last month's contest for a CD box set of music from Ken Burns' The War is Audrey L. of Bloomington Minnesota. Congratulations, Audrey!

This month's contest is for a copy of Michael Moore's SiCKO DVD, which includes the theatrical release of the film plus 80 minutes of bonus material. You can enter here. All you have to do is give us your email address so that we can send you periodic updates about new articles in the magazine along with other Washington Monthly related stuff. The contest runs through November 15.

Enter now! If you haven't seen SiCKO, it's well worth it. Great film. My capsule review from July is here.

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OCTOBER IRAQ UPDATE....It's the first of November, which means it's time for our monthly update on violence in Iraq. Handily for me, Ned Parker of the LA Times has a pretty evenhanded story today on exactly that subject:

Iraq's civilian body count in October was less than half that at its height in January, reflecting both the tactical successes of this year's U.S. troop buildup and the lasting impact of waves of sectarian death squad killings, car bombings and neighborhood purges.

....American commanders credit the buildup, which reached full strength in June, with slowing sectarian bloodshed....But others say that the picture is more complicated than that because those seeking to cleanse their neighborhoods of rival religious sects have largely succeeded. The civilian death toll plummeted nationwide in the last two months; the toll was 2,076 in January but 884 in September and 758 in October, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry.

At the same time, with an Iraqi government that remains riven by sectarian strife, the future remains unclear, American authorities acknowledge...."People just aren't confident yet that that's definitively, conclusively over. And I think it's going to be awhile before they do," Crocker told reporters. "If I were one of them, I'd certainly feel that way."

Iraqi Health Ministry numbers are only modestly reliable, but Engram has his usual statistical dump here based on ICCC figures, and it shows pretty much the same thing. U.S. troop casualties are also down significantly. Elsewhere, Michael Yon quotes Sunni Sheik Omar Jabouri saying that "Al Qaeda in Iraq is defeated."

Sheik Omar said that al Qaeda had been "defeated mentally, and therefore is defeated physically," referring to how clear it has become that the terrorist group's tactics have backfired. Operatives who could once disappear back into the crowd after committing an increasingly atrocious attack no longer find safe haven among the Iraqis who live in the southern part of Baghdad.

Jabouri joined the American side earlier this year and has since been one of the most important Sunni sheiks working with us. I don't know whether to take his statement as bombast or reality, but if it's real it's good news. Getting the civilian population to turn against terrorists and insurgents is by far the most important sign of progress in the effort to reduce violence.

The usual caveat applies to all this, of course. While the casualty reports are good news, what really matters is the same thing that's always mattered: political reconciliation, infrastructure rebuilding, and economic progress. Maybe a few more months of reduced violence will pave the way for this, but so far we've seen nada, as Ned Parker's piece makes clear. It's also not clear just how much of the reduction in violence is due to American efforts and how much is due to the fact that sectarian cleansing has been pretty successful and there are very few mixed neighborhoods left in Baghdad. If the latter, there's really not much reason for us to stick around, is there?

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BILLIONAIRES ON A RAMPAGE....Apparently the fight to allow hedge fund billionaires to continue benefitting from the revolting carried interest loophole that cuts their personal tax bill in half is ramping up: "It is getting nasty: below the belt stuff; delving into people's personal lives; crossing lines," according to Eoin Callan in the Financial Times, quoting a lobbyist. Henry Farrell asks:

I may be wrong here, but it seems to me that Callan (who is an excellent and careful journalist, as best as I can tell from his previous articles) is suggesting that hedge fund lobbyists are blackmailing politicians and their aides over their personal lives, or doing the next best thing to it. Is there another plausible explanation that I'm missing here?

Hmmm. Sounds about right to me, though I suppose it could just be a reference to generic sleazeballishness. More details, please.

And as long as we're on the subject: the willingness of congressional Democrats to roll over on this issue is simply unbelievable. None of the excuses wash. It's a plain and simple disgrace. If a party of the working class isn't willing to close a ridiculous loophole that provides a certain class of high-roller billionaires with a tax rate that's half of what ordinary people have to pay, what are they here for?

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THE HEALTHCARE BANDWAGON....Over the past year or so a fair number of corporate executives have joined the bandwagon for national healthcare. Now a new business group is adding its voice:

The leading small-business organization, a lobbying juggernaut that helped kill President Clinton's health plan in the 1990s, plans to announce today that it is signing up with a diverse political coalition promoting access to affordable healthcare for all.

The National Federation of Independent Business will join AARP, the Service Employees International Union and the Business Roundtable — which represents chief executives of major companies — in an umbrella group called Divided We Fail. The effort is aimed at ensuring that healthcare and retirement security are at the top of the presidential candidates' domestic agendas next year.

The strange bedfellows are trying to forestall the kind of political polarization that doomed Clinton's healthcare plan, as well as President Bush's effort to overhaul Social Security.

This is every bit as ironic as it seems, since there was no group in the country more responsible than NFIB for the "political polarization that doomed Clinton's healthcare plan." They were, as Ron Pollack says later in the article, "vituperative."

But as near as I can tell, their only really deep concern is and always has been making sure that small businesses aren't singled out to pay directly for national healthcare. Take that off the table and they're probably pretty malleable on the rest of the details. This is one of the reasons I support a national Value Added Tax as the funding source for a genuine universal plan. In practice, a VAT acts a lot like a sales tax that's collected at each stage of production, and as a healthcare funding source it has the advantage of being both large and stable. Here's a quick rundown of its other benefits:

  1. There's no pay-or-play mandate (i.e., either provide healthcare or pay a special tax). Businesses hate this, and small businesses really hate it, since they're the ones who usually have to pay. Conversely, a VAT is simple and universal, treating everyone equally.

  2. Very small businesseses are usually excluded from a VAT, so tiny startups and one-man shows don't have to worry about it.

  3. Economically, it's pretty efficient. Compared to other taxes, the deadweight loss is pretty small. Also, VATs are refundable on exports, so it wouldn't reduce the global competitiveness of U.S. business.

  4. It's a universal tax, not just a tax on the rich. As FDR recognized, people don't want charity. They want to feel like they're getting something they've paid for. A VAT can be structured so the rich pay more (see below), but everyone pays something.

  5. Most VATs exclude some items in order to keep the hit on the poor low. If you exclude food and housing from the VAT, for example, a VAT is relatively progressive. (Not as much as a progressive income tax, but not too bad either.)

  6. If you take a look at the relative benefits paid out, it looks even more progressive. If you have an income of $25,000 for example, but exclude food and housing worth $15,000, a 10% VAT ends us costing you about $1,000 per year. If you make $500,000 and exclude $250,000 (food and housing plus money you don't spend on consumption), you end up paying about $25,000.

    But both families end up receiving identical healthcare benefits, worth roughly $12,000 for a family of four. So the first family has a net benefit of +$11,000 while the better off family has a net benefit of -$13,000. That's pretty progressive.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that a VAT of 12%, when added to the state and federal funding we already have for healthcare, would be sufficient to fund a pretty comprehensive program. Other sources might have to be added as healthcare costs rise in the future, though that can be kept to a minimum if we put together a smart program that limits the rise of healthcare costs. Ordinary increases in program cost are handled automatically since a VAT generally produces a steady percentage of GDP, and therefore increases as GDP increases.

Would NFIB go for it? I don't know. But I'll bet a pretty good case could be made for accepting it. It's an option we ought to be considering a lot more seriously than we are.

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

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PHYSICAL ANIMAL?....In last night's linkdump I posted links to nine different stories. But this morning, when I checked comments, more than 80% of them concerned the very last link about the ninth-grade physics problem. I sense an underserved blog market here.

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AMBUSH IN WAR ZONE D....In our November issue, we have an excerpt from Wes Clark's A Time to Lead about the company he led as a young captain in Vietnam:

It has often been said, in the years since the war ended and the all-volunteer force was created, that conscripts were inferior soldiers, and that Vietnam draftees in particular couldn't or wouldn't fight. But that wasn't my experience. The draftees I served with fought with great skill and exceptional bravery. They may not have wanted to be there then, but had they not been, I would not be here today.

....They stood up, men from south Texas and the Bronx and Kansas and California, in a firefight in a jungle in Southeast Asia. Men who had been plucked out of their lives, threatened with jail if they refused, some who held master's degrees, others who hadn't finished the tenth grade, they were firing from the hip and shoulder, a dozen men, moving into the jungle to sweep what turned out to be a small enemy base camp. This was my company. These were my men.

In the same issue, Mark Schmitt reviews Ron Brownstein's The Second Civil War. Brownstein, says Schmitt, is smarter than your average pundit, but he's still stuck in a plague-on-both-your-houses mindset that's been patently specious for over a decade:

Brownstein argues that each of the things he identifies as a problem calls for "comprehensive solutions that marry ideas favored by one party and opposed by the other." On the budget, he says that Democrats would reduce the deficit entirely through tax increases, Republicans would lower it through spending cuts, and that the true solution — a balance of the two — cannot be achieved because each party rejects half of that solution. But in the six years that Republicans held unchecked power, they rejected both halves of Brownstein's solution, while when Democrats were in power, they embraced both. The budget isn't balanced now because the party that has been in power doesn't see the problem in Brownstein's terms: it favors tax cuts above all other priorities. On immigration, most Democrats favored the balanced solution that Brownstein favors, while only a tiny minority of Republicans (which happened to include the president but only twelve of his party's senators) did so.

Schmitt also makes a point about interest-group politics that's seldom appreciated: namely that it tends to reduce partisanship, not increase it. Because interest groups reach out to both parties, they diminish the power of party leaderships and provide cover for moderates to make bargains across the aisle. The whole story is here.

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOD READING....I've fallen woefully behind on articles and blog posts I want to link to. Rather than just delete them en masse from my email inbox, though, here they are in quickie linkdump form:

  • This week National Journal rated the healthcare plans from the main presidential candidates. Basically, they created 13 categories, or goals, and gave each candidate a score of 1-10 for each goal. The Democrats ended up being bunched pretty tightly: Hillary Clinton scored 86, John Edwards scored 83, and Barack Obama scored 81. The Republican scores were so pitiful I didn't bother adding them up. Details here.

    UPDATE: As Matt points out, the basic breakdown here is that Democrats do well on goals associated with providing better healthcare to more people, while the Republicans tend to do well only on categories related to spending less money. In terms of actually accomplishing anything, the Republican plans pretty much suck.

  • In "Spies Around the Watercooler," Laura Rozen writes about the unique problems faced by women who work for the CIA. Turns out it goes beyond just Valerie Plame.

  • Jeb Koogler notes that al-Qaeda in Iraq is getting pretty good at hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency.

  • Over half of all public school children in the South now come from families poor enough to qualify for school lunch assistance. And no, it's not because all the rich ones are leaving the public school system for private schools. There are just more families who don't have much money these days.

  • What if torture works? Does that make it OK?

  • Ilan Goldenberg links to a new GAO report that says our efforts in Iraq "lack strategies with clear purpose, scope, roles, and performance measures."

  • Salon has a long piece tonight about the Bush administration's war on whistleblowers. Don't let the sitepass stop you from reading it; it only takes a few seconds to get through it.

  • Stories like this make me fear for the future of the country. The punchline is at the end, of course.

  • Attention physics nerds: the New York Times says a plane flying through a crosswind travels faster than it would in clear skies. I say that's bogus, assuming you actually want to get to your destination. Anyone care to referee this problem? Your competition is a bunch of precocious ninth graders.

Kevin Drum 12:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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