Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 30, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ARE YOU FEELING STIMULATED YET?....Just in case you haven't heard, here's the schedule for mailing out this year's stimulus checks. It all depends on the last two digits of your Social Security number.

Sadly, I haven't signed up for direct deposit and my Social Security number ends in 72. So no check for me until June 27. Hmmph.

Thirsting for more? Here's an online calculator to help you calculate the size of your check. (Simple answer: $600/person or $1200/couple unless you make either very little money or quite a lot of money. If you owe back taxes, you're screwed.) More info here.

Kevin Drum 9:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY....Don't forget: it's pledge week here at the Washington Monthly! We need your help to keep the bills paid and the printing presses running, and what better time to make a contribution than now? You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card. Just click here.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Sen. Jim Webb (D–Va.), responding to John McCain's claim that Webb is obstructing negotiations on a proposed new GI bill:

"He's so full of it."

According to Webb, "I have personally talked to John three times. I made a personal call to [McCain aide] Mark Salter months ago asking that they look at this." McCain is using Webb's alleged unwillingness to negotiate as an excuse not to support his bill.

Kevin Drum 2:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE REPUBLICAN POLICY GAP....Tyler Cowen takes a look at John McCain's health plan and is perplexed:

Trade aside, so far I've yet to see many actual policy proposals from the McCain camp. Mostly I've seen attempts to signal that they won't do anything too offensive to the party's right wing. Very few of these trial balloons seem to be ideas that McCain had expressed much previous loyalty to. I don't even think we should be analyzing these statements as policy proposals. We should be wondering why the Republican Party has given up on the idea of policy proposals.

Well, look, not to get too cynical and echo-chambery here, but isn't the answer pretty obvious? At this point, Republicans just don't have many policies to offer that people like. Healthcare? The GOP basically wants to make it less secure. Jobs? Um, free trade, anyone? Taxes? That's always a crowd pleaser, but the only taxes left to cut are those aimed at corporations and the rich. Housing? The free market will take care of things. The war? Iraq forever!

So that leaves trivia like gas tax holidays and culture war attacks on Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. The more they talk about anything else, the less popular they get. So tell me: outside of the usual cultural warhorse issues (which McCain isn't very good at exploiting anyway), can you name a single major area of public concern today in which the Republican position is also popular with the public? Anybody?

Kevin Drum 1:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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IS IRAN FINALLY CHOOSING SIDES?....Hmmm. From Juan Cole, here's another tidbit of evidence that Iran has decided to abandon Muqtada al-Sadr and throw in completely with the Dawa/ISCI/Maliki government forces:

Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi (al-Ubaydi) in Najaf bitterly attacked Iran, accusing it of seeking to share with the US in influence over Iraq. He pointed to the Iranian's regime's failure to condemn the long-term mutual security agreement being crafted by the Bush administration and the al-Maliki government. Al-Obeidi's angry denunciation suggests that Iran is backing PM Nuri al-Maliki and his current chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim against the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr.

As always, take this with a big grain of salt. It may mean everything or nothing.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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McCAIN'S HEALTH PLAN....Speaking of simple moral judgments, in the Prospect this month Ezra himself does a pretty decent job of framing John McCain's healthcare proposals this way:

Somewhere in the house, a phone is ringing. It's your old insurance company, the one you had before your employer decided to make you a contractor rather than a full-time employee. Sorry, they say, but your family just doesn't fit their risk profile. They've got nothing in your price range. What if we pay a little more, you ask, rapidly weighing the consequences of taking out another mortgage or shifting more purchases to credit. Sorry, the even-voiced representative says, this time more firmly, they really don't have anything for you at all.

It is a call — or, sometimes, merely a letter — that millions of Americans have received, particularly those not covered by large employers or the federal government. These Americans are rejected for health insurance because they were sick once, or because they're too old now, or for no apparent reason at all.

....It is not a call that John McCain has ever received....Born the son of a Navy admiral, he was cared for by Navy physicians during his childhood. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy, and the military's care continued until he retired from the service in 1981. In 1982, he won a seat in Congress, ushering him into the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, and in 2001, he qualified for Medicare. When he says, "we have the highest quality of health care in the world in America," he is speaking as a man who has enjoyed a lifetime of government-run care.

That's the way to play the game. John McCain is coddled, haughty, and out-of-touch; a lifelong princeling who's completely clueless about the real problems of real Americans. More like this, please.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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SIMPLE MORAL JUDGMENTS....Ezra Klein says he's sympathetic about the media's difficulty dealing with complex policy proposal from candidates. But not too sympathetic:

Policy is hard. Lots of people come to different conclusions. Unanimity is rare. Except on this gas tax holiday. Just about no one thinks it a good idea. Conservative economists loathe it, liberal economists loathe it, energy experts loathe it...it's shameless pandering of the worst sort. So is the media going to create a scandal around McCain's pander? Around Clinton's copy-pander? Will they hound them at press conferences, run segments about the derailed "Straight Talk Express," bring on pollsters to ask whether Americans are tired of being lied to?

....When confronted by the fact that their coverage of politics is frequently trivial and annoying, many in the media argue that they only report that way because the voters make their decisions based on trivial and annoying issues. But there's no doubt that, with proper press coverage, the gas holiday could be one of those trivial and annoying issues that comes to stand-in for broader character failures or narratives or whatever. It's just that the media doesn't like to deal with policy.

Yes, it would be nice if the press spent less time on inanities and more time on how candidates planned to actually run the country. But this view of the media is just too simplistic.

Like it or not, virtually every mini-dustup in a presidential campaign — Wrightgate, Tuzlagate, bittergate, Judigate, etc. — has one thing in common: it lends itself to a simple moral judgment. It helps a lot if there's also video available (or photos in a pinch), but the really important part is the simple moral judgment. That's what people react to. Cable news amplifies this tendency and makes it worse, but they didn't invent it.

And look: the blogosphere isn't much better. Take a look at the comment section of most political blogs and check out which posts get the most activity. Learned discussions of the history of the Earned Income Tax Credit? Analysis of which Shiite faction is up or down in Iraq's civil war? Nope. It's Wrightgate and Tuzlagate and bittergate and Judigate and any other post that provides an opportunity to express a simple moral judgment. Republicans suck. Dems are spineless. The media is corrupt.

And this is true even though blog readers tend to be far more wonky than the average politically lethargic American. But despite this, the blogosphere hasn't ginned up even as much outrage over the gas tax holiday as I saw from Jack Cafferty in 30 seconds yesterday. It's just hard to get too worked up over a minor political pander when we all know that responding to interest groups is what politicians do every day. It's practically in their job description.

Now, dig up a video of John McCain having dinner with some blonde bombshell oil industry lobbyist coyly telling him how much she wants to show her appreciation for his bold gas tax holiday proposal, and you've got yourself a story. Until then, CNN can put this on a 24/7 loop and it's just not going to catch on. You can't blame the media for everything.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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GDP UPDATE....The preliminary first quarter GDP estimate is in:

In its latest report on gross domestic product, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported today that the economy grew 0.6 percent over the first quarter of the year — the same rate as in the prior three months and the weakest growth since 2002.

I'm surprised. I would have guessed lower than that, so in some weird sense I suppose this counts as good news.

Kevin Drum 11:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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PLEDGE WEEK CONTINUES!....Our motto: We keep an eye on the vast right wing conspiracy so you don't have to. If you'd like us to keep doing it, how about making a contribution to keep us going? You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card. Just click here.

In the latest installment of our VRWC watch (aka our April issue), Greg Anrig reports the surprising news that after decades of supporting school vouchers, movement conservatives are starting to lose the faith. Part of the reason is a recent batch of evidence suggesting pretty strongly that vouchers don't improve educational outcomes, but that's not the whole story. After all, as Greg points out, empirical evidence compiled by social scientists doesn't usually slow conservatives down much. There must be more to it:

Vouchers would hardly be the first conservative policy fixation to founder on the shoals of empirical evidence. Yet the conservative backers of, say, supply-side economics or health savings accounts haven't traditionally allowed hard facts to deter them. Many of the erstwhile champions of school choice are having second thoughts not only because vouchers are a policy failure, but also because they didn't materialize into the political game changer that right-wing activists were hoping for.

....In 2000, both California and Michigan offered referendums on voucher programs for all children in the state. The initiatives were defeated by margins of forty-two and thirty-eight points, respectively. Voucher supporters like to blame the defeats on well-funded teachers unions, but the law professors James E. Ryan and Michael Heise found that voucher supporters had outspent the opposition in Michigan, and both sides had spent about the same amount of money in California. They concluded that the decisive resistance to vouchers had come from suburban voters who feared that the programs would take money away from local schools and worried about the arrival of lower-income and minority students in their children's classrooms.

....Bill Burrow, the associate director of the Office on Competitiveness under the first President Bush, has noted that school choice is "popular in the national headquarters of the Republican Party but is unpopular among the Republican rank-and-file voters who have moved away from the inner city in part so that their children will not have to attend schools that are racially or socioeconomically integrated." Indeed, the term "voucher" has become so politically unattractive that in his January State of the Union address this year, President George W. Bush concocted the euphemism "Pell Grants for Kids" to propose a federal initiative to support private religious schools that has no chance of passing Congress.

In the 1980s vouchers became a major culture war issue, and it turns out that what the culture war giveth, the culture war taketh away. If you're going to make vouchers available to white kids who want to attend private schools, you also have to make them available to urban black kids who want to attend white suburban schools. And guess what? Conservative suburban parents aren't too happy about that prospect. Better not to have vouchers at all than to have vouchers that might bring inner city children into the leafy green burbs.

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

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April 29, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

JEOPARDY!....Hey, a fellow Irvinite was the big winner on Jeopardy tonight. Congratulations, Tom Morris! I totally could have taken him, though. Seriously. I coulda been a contender.

Kevin Drum 11:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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REJECTING AND DENOUNCING....I'm pretty much willing to let John Cole have the last word on Jeremiah Wright and all the other lefty bugbears being peddled 24/7 by Fox News:

And you know what? They may be assholes, or jerks, or whatever term you want to use, but they sure as hell didn't run this economy into the ground. They aren't responsible for turning a huge surplus into a several hundred billion dollar deficit. I have yet to read any memos from Barbra Streisand detailing how we should spy on American citizens.

....Maybe it is because I am totally and unrepentantly in the tank for Obama, but I just can't get worked up over what his pastor said. Maybe it is because I am not religious, and I am used to religious people saying things that sound crazy. Or maybe I just refuse to spend any more time and energy getting worked up over and denouncing, distancing, and rejecting the wrong people — people who really don't matter in the big scheme of things. If you have a memo from Jeremiah Wright to John Yoo showing how we should become a rogue nation, let me know. If you have pictures of Jeremiah Wright voting against the GI Bill, send it to me. If you have evidence of Jeremiah Wright training junior soldiers on the finer aspects of stacking and torturing naked Iraqi captives, pass them on.

Until then, I just can't seem to get all worked up about the crazy scary black preacher that Obama has to "throw under the bus."

What he said.

Kevin Drum 7:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (100)

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ECONOMY UPDATE....The economy continues to suck:

In the 12 months ended in February, the Case-Shiller home price index, which measures the value of single-family homes in 10 major metropolitan regions, fell 13.6 percent, the biggest decline since records began in 1987....The slump in home prices was more severe than the worst point of the recession of the 1990s, the last time values fell so far, so quickly.

....The problems have contributed to a deepening gloom, which was reinforced on Tuesday by a grim confidence survey released by the Conference Board. The private report, which surveys up to 5,000 American households, dropped to its lowest point since March 2003, at the start of the invasion of Iraq. Americans feel worse about the economy's prospects than any time since the mid-1970s, and many are bracing for job losses.

The consumer confidence number has now dropped a staggering 28 points in just four months. And don't forget that first quarter GDP estimates come out tomorrow. Brace yourselves for more bad news.

Kevin Drum 3:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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BLEEDING....Barack Obama today denounced Jeremiah Wright's recent comments as "appalling" and "outrageous." James Joyner comments:

I'm not sure what more Obama could say, to be honest. He'll be tarred somewhat for having spent 20 years in Wright's congregation and touting him so heavily as his mentor. But this should stop the bleeding.

You betcha. I'm sure Sean Hannity and John McCain will take this straight to heart.

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FAIR AND BALANCED....Yep, "beyond parody" is about right.

Kevin Drum 2:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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CRANK ECONOMICS....John McCain wants to ease up on state regulations that require health insurers to cover specific conditions. So what would happen to kids like Jake Bernard, who gets speech therapy for his cleft lip only because Florida law requires it?

Asked about the contradiction between the family on the stage and the McCain policy, McCain senior policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin said that the marketplace will fill the void. If there is a demand for this kind of coverage, he said, some insurance company will offer it.

Didn't Holtz-Eakin used to be a respected economist? Now we get gas tax holidays, $5 trillion spending holes (that don't count because, for some reason, extending Bush's tax cuts just shouldn't count), airy nonsense about $60 billion in savings from eliminating earmarks, and "the marketplace will fill the void."

This is crankery. Free-market capitalism really deserves better defenders than this. I hope Holtz-Eakin at least has the good grace to grimace while he's saying stuff like this.

Kevin Drum 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE YOUTH VOTE....A year and a half ago, the New York Times took a look at the party affiliations of different generations, producing a fascinating chart that showed a tremendous movement among young voters toward the Democratic party. By 2006, Democrats had opened up a lead among 20-year-olds of 52-37, the largest measured gap ever.

So what's happened since then? Acording to Pew, the gap has gotten even bigger. In polling done over the past six months, voters in their 20s identified as Democrats by a margin of 58-33. That's a 25-point gap. For comparison, the biggest recorded gap before now was 11 points at the height of Democratic dominance during the late 40s and 13 points after Watergate. But it turns out that even Nixon couldn't come close to doing the damage to the Republican brand that George Bush has. His administration has nearly doubled the previous record.

Via Mori Dinauer, who suggests that this means at least an extra million votes for the Democratic candidate in November. And the even better news? There's a good chance it means an even bigger advantage in 2012 and beyond.

Kevin Drum 1:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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McCAIN, IRAQ, AND 100 YEARS....Steve Benen summarizes John McCain's inability to make up his mind about whether we should have a long term presence in Iraq, similar to the one we have in South Korea:

  • In 2005, McCain decided Iraqis resent our military presence, so we should reject a Korea-like model for long-term troop deployment. He insisted that "U.S. 'visibility' was detrimental to the Iraq mission and that Iraqis were responding negatively to America's presence — positions held by both Obama and Clinton."

  • In 2006, McCain reversed course, and embraced the Korea model for a long-term military presence.

  • In 2007, McCain reversed course again, saying the Korean analogy doesn't work and shouldn't be followed. "[E]ventually I think because of the nature of the society in Iraq and the religious aspects of it that America eventually withdraws," McCain told Charlie Rose last fall.

  • And in 2008, McCain reversed course yet again, deciding that we should be prepared to leave troops in Iraq, even if it means 100 years or more.

Foreign policy is easy when you just make it up as you go along! More at the link.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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DEFENDING THE LEFT....Dan Drezner complains of unfair economic comparisons from us lefties:

An old warhorse of political economy/anti-corporate types, for example, is to say that the sales of multinational corporations exceeds many countries GDP. This is true but irrelevant — GDP measures the value-added that an economy generates per year, so the proper and correct comparison is between a firm's profits and GDP. When using that metric, corporations suddenly don't look so big.

Hold on a second. This isn't true, is it? Leaving aside trade deficits, GDP is basically consumption plus investment. If I buy a Ford Taurus for $20,000, that adds $20,000 to GDP even though Ford makes a net profit per car of about $3 these days. (In a good quarter, that is.) I don't know if sales revenue is precisely comparable to GDP, but it's pretty close. Right?

UPDATE: Right, GDP includes only sales of final goods and services, not intermediate sales. But sales revenue is still a more apt comparison than profits, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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GAS TAX DEMAGOGUERY....Yesterday was one of the more depressing days I've spent in a long time. The Jeremiah Wright dustup was the main reason, but there were others too. Like this bit of fantastical pandering from Hillary Clinton:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton lined up with Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, in endorsing a plan to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for the summer travel season. But Senator Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton's Democratic rival, spoke out firmly against the proposal, saying it would save consumers little and do nothing to curtail oil consumption and imports.

While Mr. Obama's view is shared by environmentalists and many independent energy analysts, his position allowed Mrs. Clinton to draw a contrast with her opponent in appealing to the hard-hit middle-class families and older Americans who have proven to be the bedrock of her support. She has accused Mr. Obama of being out of touch with ordinary Americans who are struggling to meet their mortgages and gas up their cars and trucks.

I'd say there's approximately a zero percent chance that Hillary Clinton or John McCain actually believe this is good policy. It would increase oil company profits, it would make hardly a dent in the price of gasoline, it would encourage more summertime driving, and it would deprive states of money for transit projects. Their staff economists know this perfectly well, and so do they.

But they don't care. It's a way to engage in some good, healthy demagoguery, and if there's anything that the past couple of months have reinforced, it's the notion that demagoguery sells. Boy does it sell.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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HILLARY ON RACE....In the Wall Street Journal today, Gerald Seib suggests that it's not just the black candidate who ought to address the subject of race in the Democratic primary:

As fears of a racial divide move from the wings to center stage for Democrats, it has largely been Sen. Barack Obama who has been called upon to address the subject....Undoubtedly, he'll have to do so again, in the wake of an appearance at the National Press Club Monday by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., whose commentaries on the state of American society have done as much as anything to bring race out of the campaign's shadows.

Yet it is Sen. Clinton who now has the greater ability to ease racial tensions within her party. Arguably, she also has the greater need to do so, for her long-term standing.

The rapidly congealing conventional wisdom suggests that Obama is in deep trouble after Jeremiah Wright's remarks yesterday and needs to disown him completely. This might be true: some of Wright's comments, especially his impromptu answers to questions about AIDS and Louis Farrakhan, are obviously damaging as hell to Obama's cause.

But Seib is right: Hillary Clinton could go a long way toward easing the tension that's threatening to open a very deep breach within the Democratic Party. And she should. It wouldn't be easy: she's not a naturally gifted speaker, as Obama and Bill Clinton are, and every word she said would be scrutinized for double meaning and disingenuousness. Still, why shouldn't the white candidate talk about this too? Defend Wright where he's defensible and criticize him where he isn't. Repudiate the ugliness that's overtaken the campaign — much of it her own doing — and say plainly that it's unfair to keep pretending that Obama bears responsibility for another person's words. Take the press to task for focusing on trivia, and the public as well for holding a black preacher to a different standard than white ones like John Hagee, whose comments have been every bit as incendiary as anything Wright has said. Talk as honestly about race from a white perspective as Obama did last month from a black perspective.

It wouldn't be easy. But then, she wants to president, doesn't she? That's not a job where you get to duck the tough issues.

Kevin Drum 11:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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MORE PLEDGE WEEK....Last night, a commenter asked me why a magazine like the Washington Monthly needs to have a fundraising drive in the first place. It's a good question with a simple answer: it's because political magazines are historically unprofitable ventures. This is true of just about every political magazine you've ever heard of. Subscriptions and advertising don't come close to covering the cost of salaries, office space, printing, postage, and so forth, so we all look for additional sources of revenue, which mainly consists of foundation support and fundraising drives. Without them, we can't stay in business.

So that's why we ask for donations periodically: It keeps the magazine running and it keeps this blog on the air. So if you like what we do here, throw some coin our way. We'll put it to good use. As always, you can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card. Just click here.

Now, one way that we don't raise money is by taking bribes from shady business folks and then wrapping the cash in tin foil and stashing it in the the office refrigerator. We leave that up to guys like congressman "Dollar" Bill Jefferson of Louisiana, profiled in our current issue by veteran New Orleans writer Jason Berry. Jefferson's motivation? He did it all for his family:

By the late 1980s, Jefferson the civil rights idealist had devolved into a standard-issue machine politician. In his case, his political organization relied heavily on the Jefferson clan. Having found a reliable client in the historically black Southern University system, Bill helped his wife take a seat on the system's supervisory board, a position fraught with enough conflict-of-interest possibilities to raise a furor in any state but Louisiana. He helped his brother Archie look for investment opportunities after Archie had lost his law practice for borrowing against client accounts to support a drug habit. (The state supreme court disbarred Archie for issuing worthless checks and criticized him for "a fundamental lack of moral character and fitness.")

Jefferson's older brother, Mose, renowned for whirlwind installations of cardboard political signs about the city, began operating low-income rental properties in Central City that would dovetail with Bill Jefferson's political interests. And in the 1980s, Bill teamed up with five of his ten siblings to form Jefferson Interests, a company that ran stores specializing in appliance rentals to the poor. Jefferson even sponsored a bill that would allow such stores to file theft charges against renters who failed to return the appliances on time. The bill failed.

Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 1:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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April 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PAGING ADAM SMITH....Jad Mouawad writes about oil production in the New York Times today:

As oil prices soared to record levels in recent years, basic economics suggested that consumption would fall and supply would rise as producers opened the taps to pump more.

But as prices flirt with $120 a barrel, many energy specialists are becoming worried that neither seems to be happening. Higher prices have done little to attract new production or to suppress global demand, and the resulting mismatch has sent oil prices spiraling upward.

....The outlook for oil supplies "signals a period of unprecedented scarcity," an analyst at CIBC World Markets, Jeff Rubin, said last week. Oil prices might reach more than $200 by 2012, he said, a level that would probably mean $7-a-gallon gasoline in the United States.

I imagine that a global economic slowdown will flatten oil consumption a bit over the next year or two, and eventually higher prices will rein in demand more permanently. On the other hand, we've seen oil prices double three times in the past eight years without producing so much as a blip in rising demand. So if we're in a genuine, long-term supply crunch — and all the evidence suggests we are — what price will it take to stabilize demand in its current neighborhood of around 85-90 billion barrels per year? Another doubling? Two doublings? Neither would surprise me. There are too many unknowns to pretend to have any kind of definitive guess, but still, if 2012 were an over/under bet for oil to hit $200, I'd take the under.

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JOHN McCAIN'S FINANCES....Even though I've commented on this before, I didn't realize just how skimpy John McCain's financial disclosure was until I read this Moneybox piece over the weekend:

Aside from a Wachovia checking account, in which he keeps between $15,000 and $50,000 (wouldn't some of that money earn more interest in a certificate of deposit?), all of the couple's assets are in Cindy's name. John McCain's tax return is so anemic, so marginal to the couple's actual financial situation, that he doesn't even take a deduction for interest on his home mortgage. Presumably Cindy does, since disclosure forms indicate that she has several mortgages.

Can we stop pretending to be children about this? There's only one reason for a politician to make sure that all his assets are in his wife's name: it's to make sure that no one knows anything about his assets. It's not as if McCain is the first pol to try this, after all.

Is the press really going to let him get away with this?

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EQUAL PROTECTION....The Supreme Court today upheld Indiana's shiny new voter ID law, a law that plainly fails to address any actual problem. Or does it? From the lead opinion:

It remains true, however, that flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country have been documented throughout this Nation's history by respected historians and journalists, that occasional examples have surfaced in recent years, and that Indiana's own experience with fraudulent voting in the 2003 Democratic primary for East Chicago Mayor — though perpetrated using absentee ballots and not in-person fraud — demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election.

And what are the examples of voter fraud that John Paul Stevens managed to adduce to support this paragraph? Marty Lederman tells us: (1) Boss Tweed stuffing ballot boxes in 1868, (2) a case in Washington state in which one person committed voter fraud, and (3) a 2003 case of fraud in Indiana which, as Stevens acknowledges, the new law wouldn't cover because it was done via absentee ballot.

Presumably these were the best examples that anyone could come up with. And what do you conclude from them? That's easy: in-person voter fraud is vanishingly rare while absentee voter fraud is, perhaps, a problem genuinely worth addressing. Needless to say, though, Indiana's law does exactly the opposite: it requires voter ID for in-person voting and does nothing to ensure the integrity of absentee voting.

We all know why this is: it's because, as Common Cause reminds us, restricting in-person voting tends to reduce turnout among minorities, the elderly, voters with disabilities, the poor, and the young — all of which, though CC is too polite to mention it, tend to vote Democratic. Absentee voters, by contrast, tend to vote Republican.

So what's the real motivation for Indiana's law? That's pretty obvious, isn't it? And pretty shameful.

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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THE LATEST FROM JEREMIAH WRIGHT....Jake Tapper reports on Jeremiah Wright's speech this morning to the National Press Club:

On his contention that the U.S. government had created AIDS as a method of committing genocide against African-Americans, Wright referred to a hotly-disputed 1996 book "Emerging Viruses: AIDS And Ebola : Nature, Accident or Intentional?" by Leonard G Horowitz, which contends that AIDS and the Ebola viruses evolved during cancer experiments on monkeys.

....Wright was also asked about his relationship with Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan....Farrakhan, Wright said, is "one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century," noting the Million Man March....."Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy," Wright said, since Farrakhan had not enslaved Africans and brought them in chains to the U.S.

Wright sure isn't doing Barack Obama any favors, is he?

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TAX-O-MATIC....Yglesias on taxes:

It's absolutely crippling to any effort to outline policy with any level of ambition to concede the idea that any tax that places any burden whatsoever on the non-rich is therefore unacceptable. It's fairly easy to design revenue measures that fall mostly on the rich, but extraordinarily difficult to design measures that exclusively snag people who fit a conventional definition of rich.

Yep. And what makes this problem even worse is that the attacks these days come from both left and right. The right will claim that an increase in the capital gains tax, for example, is a dreadful idea because it affects middle-class investors — despite the fact that only about 2% of capital gains taxes are paid by the middle class. On the left, you'll get social justice environmentalists inveighing against carbon taxes or congestion taxes or gasoline taxes because they impact the poor — despite the fact that the resulting revenues are usually used for programs that directly help the poor. Rock meet hard place.

I suppose there are two possible answers to this. The first is for liberals to get better (and braver) about proposing tax hikes. I'm all ears for any bright ideas on this score. The second is to do what Republicans do: propose spending increases and just don't worry about the taxes. If the Washington Post editorial board huffs and puffs, who cares? Eventually things will work themselves out. That's not the way I'd like to see things get done in a perfect world, but we don't live in a perfect world, do we?

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLEDGE WEEK....It's fundraising time again! As you all know, since I mentioned this during our last fundraising drive, the Washington Monthly is a nonprofit organization. Ad revenue only covers a small part of our expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to stay up and humming. So if you like the blog and you like the Washington Monthly, we're asking for your help again. Ten bucks, twenty bucks, fifty bucks, whatever you can afford.

You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card. Just click here to help out.

And what kind of reporting does your contribution keep alive? This month's cover story is by Washington Monthly editor T.A. Frank, who used to work for a Los Angeles firm that specialized in the field of "compliance consulting," or "corporate social responsibility monitoring." In other words, they inspected sweatshops, both in the U.S. and overseas, to make sure they followed some minimal set of labor standards. In "Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector," he tells us which clients were good and which ones were bad:

You may get the sense that I'm not Wal-Mart's biggest fan. You'd be right. I betray no confidence here, since Wal-Mart wasn't a client of ours while I was at my company. Nevertheless, I still got to visit plenty of its supplier factories. That's because any given factory usually has more than one customer, and during an audit we would always ask the bosses to name their other customers. Wal-Mart was often one of them. And its suppliers were among the worst I saw — dangerous, nasty, and poorly paid even by local (usually Chinese) measures. I noticed that Wal-Mart claimed to require factories to maintain decent labor standards — but why did it seem to think it could find them among the lowest bidders?

Read the whole thing to get the inside story on how compliance firms work — or don't.

Kevin Drum 12:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUICK HITS....A couple of quick links. First, Jeremy Manier of the Chicago Tribune has an interesting piece up about early childhood education and how Obama and Clinton compare on the issue. Click here to read it.

Second, Reed Hundt scours John McCain's website to see what he has to say about the information and communications technology sector. Answer: nothing. Though, oddly enough, he is under the impression that there's a move afoot to tax text messages and 911 calls and he aims to stop it. Good to know.

Third, Blue Girl asks, "Do you know where your food has been?" If you don't, click here.

Kevin Drum 12:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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April 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON RATINGS....Speaking of rating agencies, I want to highlight a single passage from the Roger Lowenstein article that I blogged about below. It's about how investment bankers create complex financial instruments that receive high ratings:

Credit markets are not continuous; a bond that qualifies, though only by a hair, as investment grade is worth a lot more than one that just fails....The challenge to investment banks is to design securities that just meet the rating agencies' tests...."Every agency has a model available to bankers that allows them to run the numbers until they get something they like and send it in for a rating," a former Moody's expert in securitization says.

Go ahead and call me a rube, but is this for real? The rating agencies just hand over their models to the Wall Street rocket scientists so they can probe for every weakness and tweak every loophole in order to put together a package that — just barely! — meets the agency's parameters for a high rating? Does this sound like a recipe for disaster to you? It does to me. Is it the kind of thing you think would happen if the agencies were more interested in providing honest ratings than in attracting lucrative Wall Street business? I don't.

Maybe the real bubble of the last few years has been a rating agency bubble. And maybe now it's popped. If that's true, and if we don't do anything about it, then for a large class of investors the only realistic option is going to be a complete halt to investing in complex securities. After all, there's no way for any but the most sophisticated fund managers to understand them, and no one else can be trusted to give an honest opinion about them. And if complex instruments become too toxic for pension funds and local governments and mainstream money managers, then the market for them essentially goes away. Which is a bad thing, right? Because those complex instruments really do serve a purpose by reducing friction in financial markets and making more money available to more people.

So what do we do? Regulate the rating agencies? Demand greater transparency? Just amp up capital requirements and leave the rest alone? Or what?

Kevin Drum 4:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE RATING AGENCIES....In the New York Times magazine today, Roger Lowenstein takes a look at the role of rating agencies in our current credit crisis. Were they at fault because they got in bed with their customers and overrated complex new mortgage-backed securities? Or were they innocent bystanders in a world gone mad?

Proposition A gets an airing early on. Lowenstein explains that after the sudden collapse of Penn Central in 1970, new rules were put in place that effectively barred large classes of investors from buying anything other than investment grade bonds. And it was the rating agencies that decided which bonds were investment grade and which ones weren't:

Issuers thus were forced to seek credit ratings (or else their bonds would not be marketable). The agencies — realizing they had a hot product and, what's more, a captive market — started charging the very organizations whose bonds they were rating. This was an efficient way to do business, but it put the agencies in a conflicted position.

....The evidence on whether rating agencies bend to the bankers' will is mixed. The agencies do not deny that a conflict exists, but they assert that they are keen to the dangers and minimize them....But in structured finance, the agencies face pressures that did not exist when John Moody was rating railroads. On the traditional side of the business, Moody's has thousands of clients (virtually every corporation and municipality that sells bonds). No one of them has much clout. But in structured finance, a handful of banks return again and again, paying much bigger fees. A [big deal] can bring Moody's $200,000 and more for complicated deals. And the banks pay only if Moody's delivers the desired rating. Tom McGuire, the Jesuit theologian who ran Moody's through the mid-'90s, says this arrangement is unhealthy. If Moody's and a client bank don't see eye to eye, the bank can either tweak the numbers or try its luck with a competitor like S.&P., a process known as "ratings shopping."

And it seems to have helped the banks get better ratings. [Joseph] Mason, of Drexel University, compared default rates for corporate bonds rated Baa with those of similarly rated collateralized debt obligations until 2005 (before the bubble burst). Mason found that the C.D.O.'s defaulted eight times as often. One interpretation of the data is that Moody's was far less discerning when the client was a Wall Street securitizer.

....Nothing sent the agencies into high gear as much as the development of structured finance....Credit markets are not continuous; a bond that qualifies, though only by a hair, as investment grade is worth a lot more than one that just fails....The challenge to investment banks is to design securities that just meet the rating agencies' tests...."Every agency has a model available to bankers that allows them to run the numbers until they get something they like and send it in for a rating," a former Moody's expert in securitization says. In other words, banks were gaming the system; according to Chris Flanagan, the subprime analyst at JPMorgan, "Gaming is the whole thing."

Even a small tweak in a rating can make a big difference, and both the rating agencies and the banks issuring the bonds have an incentive to tweak things in the bank's favor: the bank because it makes their offerings more profitable, the agency because it makes their client happy. Whether or not the agencies are "keen to the dangers" of this, it's naive to think that it doesn't happen. It's a lot like the "Chinese wall" that was supposed to separate the supposedly independent research analysts from the investment bankers at financial services firms during the dotcom boom. Guess what? It turned out the wall was made of rice paper.

But then there's Proposition B. It suggests that the rating agencies used historical models to analyze mortgage-backed securities, and in the brave new world of subprime hegemony and structured finance, their old models broke down:

Poring over the data, Moody's discovered that the size of people's first mortgages was no longer a good predictor of whether they would default; rather, it was the size of their first and second loans — that is, their total debt — combined. This was rather intuitive; Moody's simply hadn't reckoned on it. Similarly, credit scores, long a mainstay of its analyses, had not proved to be a "strong predictor" of defaults this time. Translation: even people with good credit scores were defaulting.

Roughly speaking, Brad DeLong opts for Proposition B. He thinks the problem is that too many fund managers simply accepted ratings as a gold standard instead of doing their jobs and asking the "three standard questions" that all investors should always ask. "If you truly do not want to ask the three standard questions and evaluate credit risk you should be in U.S. Treasuries (and even there you have to assess inflation risk and, unless you are planning to hold to maturity, monetary policy risk). And if you want higher yields than Treasuries offer — well, then you are back to asking your three standard questions again."

Point taken. But I wonder if this is realistic. There are a very limited number of extremely smart people in Wall Street firms creating all these complex new financial instruments, and they're very highly motivated to make them as impenetrable as possible. The average pension fund manager or county treasurer is simply never going to be able to analyze them in any serious kind of way. It's easy to say they should, but that's like saying that our schools would be better off if every schoolteacher had a PhD. Given the current state of the art in human nature, it's just not going to happen.

So in reality, there's a large class of investors who have little choice but to trust the rating agencies. And if rating agencies have a fundamental financial interest in colluding with their clients, then that collusion is almost certain to happen. It's true that the agencies might also make innocent mistakes, but let's face it: the incentives work strongly in the direction of making all those mistakes in favor of their banking clients, not the investor community. It's possible, for example, that Moody's genuinely didn't realize that first and second loans combined were a better measure of debt stress than first mortgages alone, but that's really not rocket science. It's hard not to think that they weren't trying very hard to understand the emerging new realities. As Upton Sinclair famously said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

So sign me up as a dissenter. Yes, investors are responsible for analyzing the risk of their investments. At the same time, when it comes to the kinds of investment vehicles routinely created today, the only realistic option a lot of investors have is to trust the advice of independent experts — ones who have their own staff of rocket scientists and access to all the underlying data that makes up a modern investment vehicle. If it turns out that those independent experts have enormous incentives to help the bankers game the system, that's a problem. And right now we're all paying a pretty big price for it.

Kevin Drum 2:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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By: Kevin Drum

NEXT UP: TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL?....Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch argue today that the unabashed celebration of capitalism in "Dallas" helped bring down the Iron Curtain:

In Romania, "Dallas" was the last Western show allowed during the nightmare 1980s because President Nicolae Ceausescu was persuaded that it was sufficiently anti-capitalistic. By the time he changed his mind, it was already too late — he had paid for the full run in precious hard currency. Meanwhile, the show provided a luxuriant alternative to a communism that was forcing people to wait more than a decade to buy the most rattletrap Romanian car....To this day, you can visit an ersatz "SouthForkscu" ranch in the nowheresville Romanian town of Slobozia (yes, that's its real name).

Sure, I'll buy that. Why not? I loved "Dallas" back in the day. And as N&M say, "For all the talk of boycotts and bombs, if the United States is interested in spreading American values and institutions, a little TV-land may go a lot further than armored personnel carriers."

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BUBBA GAP....Apparently this week's issue of Newsweek was guest edited by Mark Penn. The cover story is blurbed like this: "Barack Obama is a Niebuhr-reading ESPN watcher. The origins of his troubles with the 'other' tag." And the cover photo dramatizes this as arugula vs. beer. Cute!

And on the off chance that you don't quite get the message, the issue also includes pieces by Karl Rove ("President Bush's former senior adviser offers advice for fighting the 'elistist' label"); Jonathan Alter ("Hillary wants to cast Obama as a 'Brother From Another Planet'"); Ellis Cose ("No matter what Obama does or what issue he takes, many voters may vote purely on demographic and racial terms"); and Raina Kelley ("With Barack Obama, it's about much more than just race").

That's an impressive package. I'd say they hit pretty much every latte-sipping talking point in the book. Nice work.

Kevin Drum 11:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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April 26, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PEEVES OF THE DAY....With over a century of product design experience behind them, why can't breakfast cereal companies create a box that opens and closes easily?

There are lots of places where it's natural to stop and ponder which direction you want to go next. These places include the immediate vicinities of doorways, escalators, airport jetways, elevators, etc. However, these are also the places where, if you stop to ponder your options, you're going to automatically be in everyone else's way. So how about if we all learn to take a few steps first and then think about where we want to go next? Deal?

How could Jack McDevitt possibly have gotten nominated for (multiple!) Nebulas? Cauldron may be the worst piece of science fiction I've ever read.

Yeah, I'm in a grouchy mood this morning. So sue me. No cats joined us in bed last night and I couldn't finish the NYT crossword this morning. Blah. Feel free to add your own peeves in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (184)

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April 25, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SYRIA FOLLOWUP....Here's more on the Syrian/North Korean nuclear reactor thing. One of the big questions floating around is: Why now? The intelligence community has kept quiet about it for a full seven months since Al Kibar was bombed, so why did they finally decide to brief Congress (and the press) this week?

The leading theory is that hardline hawks, who have been up in arms over the likelihood that Bush is going to conclude a deal soon with North Korea, somehow finagled the IC into holding the briefing as a way of stirring up trouble and making the deal less likely to proceed. Since hawks hate treaties of all kinds, and especially hate the prospect of a treaty with North Korea, this is plausible.

Still, something about it doesn't quite ring true. After all, the administration is pretty committed to working out a deal with North Korea before it leaves office, and although it's possible that Bush got outmaneuvered here, that wouldn't be my first guess.

However, there's another possibility: there have been some very credible reports recently that Israel and Syria are serious about trying to work out a deal of their own that basically exchanges peace for a return of the Golan Heights. The Bush administration is dead set against it. So maybe that explains the timing of the briefing. Maybe Bush figured it would stir up renewed hostility toward Syria and scuttle any attempts to pressure him into brokering a deal, but not stir up so much hostility that it would also scuttle ongoing talks with North Korea.

Maybe. It's just a guess. Daniel Levy has more along these lines over at TPMCafe.

Kevin Drum 8:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....I fell down on the job this week, realizing only at the last minute yesterday that I had no catblogging pictures for today. So I hauled out the camera, set the zoom to maximum, and told the cats to smile for their closeups. That's always good for some quick and easy catblogging!

Need more? How about some MRI imagery of the feline brain? It's right here.

Kevin Drum 3:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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By: Kevin Drum

SYRIAN REACTOR UPDATE....So was that mysterious building in the Syrian desert (the one that was bombed last year by the Israelis) really a nuclear reactor? World Politics Review has the video that the intelligence community showed to Congress this week, so click here if you want to see it for yourself. It's about ten minutes long. The pictures on the right, taken from the video, are photos of the Syrian reactor vessel (top) along with a comparison to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon.

Arms Control Wonk has a transcript of the briefing, which includes this:

Now, as early as 2003, we judged that the interactions [between Syria and North Korea] probably were nuclear-related, again, because of who it was we were seeing in these interactions. But we had no details on the nature or location of the cooperative projects.

....We acquired information, though, in the spring of '07 that enabled us to conclude that this non-descript-looking building in al Wadi, near the Euphrates River in eastern Syria was indeed a covert nuclear reactor. The information included photographs of the interior and the exterior of the building located in Dayr az Zawr showing key features of the reactor.

Basically, the intelligence community is convinced that (1) the Al Kibar facility is a plutonium reactor of North Korea design, (2) it's poorly suited for either research or electricity production, and (3) the photos they have are genuine. However, they also have no evidence of a reprocessing facility in the region of Al Kibar and "low confidence" that Syria has any kind of serious weapons program.

So....things are still fuzzy. The intelligence briefers unanimously believed that the North Korean involvement was solely motivated by money. And the reactor by itself wouldn't get Syria very close to any kind of real nuclear weapons production. But it doesn't have any other purpose either.

I dunno. The evidence looks pretty strong that North Korea did indeed sell nuclear technology to the Syrians, but on the Syrian side it looks mostly like a boondoggle. There was little chance of keeping it a secret forever, and by itself it really didn't do them any good anyway. Overall, it's still kind of mysterious what they thought they were accomplishing here.

Kevin Drum 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

SIX MORE MONTHS OF THIS?....I guess he can't compete with K-Lo in the dumb quote department, but Thomas P.M. Barnett is sure giving her a run for her money:

McCain would scare me on many levels, but a Dem prez plus strengthened Dem majorities in both houses? Yikes, that's got Smoot-Hawley written all over it, and that would be significantly more damaging to world stability than even nuking Iran — I kid you not.

And they'd steal your babies and ship them to vast underground factories where they'd all be ground into Soylent Green! I kid you not.

Via James Joyner.

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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NO OPTIONS OFF THE TABLE....Yesterday the question was, what does "deal with Iran" mean to Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen? Today he answers. Sort of:

Mullen said the U.S. government will not take any option off the table in responding to the Iranian threat. But speaking to reporters today, Mullen repeatedly made clear that he preferred dealing with the problem through diplomatic or financial pressure rather than a military strike.

Still, Mullen said the military had plans to respond to a variety of potential incidents involving Iran...."I have reserve capability in our Air Force and Navy," Mullen said. "It would be a mistake to think we are out of combat capability."

So there.

Kevin Drum 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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April 24, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MOST UNPOPULAR EVER....The Iraq war has set a new record. Just like the guy who started it.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to the Atlantic Council Monday night:

"Recent combat operations in Southern Iraq in Basra highlighted yet again Iran's activities in ways that very specifically pointed to activities which, in fact, resulted in the deaths of coalition soldiers. And I think for the ability to create stability in that part of the world that not just this alliance, but those who are allied, will have to deal with Iran in the very near future."

"Deal with Iran" means different things to different people. I wonder what it means to Mullen?

Kevin Drum 6:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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By: Kevin Drum

SUPPORTING THE TROOPS....Over at The Corner they're having a rollicking discussion about Rep. Paul Broun's effort to ban the sale of Playboy on military bases. I eagerly await Roy Edroso's take on this, the high point of which (so far) is this plaintive cry from Kathryn Jean Lopez:

I love men. I love men being men. I love military men. And I thank God they are military men. But I find it hard to believe that all military men are "drinking and whoring Saturday night," and if they are in any kind of majority, yeah, that bears scrutiny.

Hoo boy. On the other hand, the whole thing might be worth it just for Lisa Schiffren's post about how the military solved the problem of ensuring plentiful enlisted nookie during the Gulf War. Turns out Romania is involved. And party ships. Just goes to show that the Army still needs the squids and flyboys after all.

Kevin Drum 3:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ UPDATE....The latest from Iraq:

Iraq's largest Sunni bloc has agreed to return to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's cabinet after a nine-month boycott, several Sunni leaders said on Thursday, citing a recently passed amnesty law and the Maliki government's crackdown on Shiite militias as reasons for the move.

.... "Our conditions were very clear, and the government achieved some of them," said Adnan al-Duleimi, the head of Tawafiq, the largest Sunni bloc in the government. Mr. Duleimi said the achievements included "the general amnesty, chasing down the militias and disbanding them and curbing the outlaws."

The recently passed amnesty law has already led to the release of many Sunni prisoners, encouraging Sunni parties that the government is serious about enforcing it. And the attacks on Shiite militias have apparently begun to assuage longstanding complaints that only Sunni groups blamed for the insurgency have been the targets of American and Iraqi security forces.

Aside from everything else, this seems to be yet another step in the campaign to isolate the Sadrists — now the only significant group completely outside the government — and put the Mahdi Army out of business. Is that good news on the stability front, or does it mean that full-scale war with Sadr and his troops is becoming ever more imminent? Or both? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 3:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

SELLING THE WAR, PART CCXVI....How balanced was media coverage of the war during 2002 and early 2003? Syracuse University political scientists Matt Guardino and Danny Hayes recently examined every Iraq story on ABC and CBS news during the prewar period and drew this conclusion:

The data flatly contradict the claim that dissenting views were "shut out" of news coverage....When the two networks are aggregated together, the distribution of source quotes is 34% supportive, 35% neutral, and 30% opposed.

What a relief! But wait. It turns out that virtually all of the supportive quotes came from the Bush administration (no surprise) while nearly all of the opposed quotes came from....

Foreigners. Yep. Despite the fact that plenty of Democratic politicians and U.S. experts opposed the war, the news networks almost completely shut off domestic sources of criticism:

As a result, forty percent of all anti-war quotes were attributed to Saddam Hussein and his underlings. An additional 17% were attributed to foreign sources, including leaders in France, who became the administration's most prominent international critics. And UN officials, who urged the White House to allow the weapons inspections a chance to proceed, were the source of 8% of antiwar quotes. This juxtaposition of the Bush administration's arguments in favor of military action, and the arguments of foreign leaders, including Saddam Hussein, against, created an "us vs. them" narrative.

Peter Scoblic, call your office!

Needless to say, relying on Saddam Hussein, Jacques Chirac, and Kofi Annan to be the almost exclusive face of the anti-war movement is even worse than ignoring it. As the authors say blandly, "It is well known that source credibility is central to the persuasiveness of communication, political or otherwise. And while many Americans were skeptical of the Bush administration's motivations for a confrontation with Iraq, we would surmise that even greater skepticism infused Americans' perceptions of Saddam Hussein's arguments about why war was a bad idea." Seems a safe surmise to me.

Via The Monkey Cage.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE McCAIN MYTH....David Broder says John McCain "is the rare exception who is not assumed to be willing to sacrifice personal credibility to prevail in any contest." Bob Somerby is pissed:

The Dean doesn't tell us who assumes this — nor does he say if their assumption is warranted. And this is odd, because let's be frank: John McCain basically lied through his teeth all through his last run for the White House.

He lied about the Confederate flag — later said that he had, for God's sake. He lied about Bush's tax proposal. He ran a phone bank against Bush in Michigan, then openly lied about that. He reinvented his stand on abortion every time he opened his mouth. He kept telling a nasty joke about Gore — a "joke" which was utterly bogus on the factual level.

Today, he lies about the things he said about Bush's tax plan back then. But a tired old man somehow hits the key which produces this praise for McCain.

I'll give Broder credit for one thing: he's right about McCain's straight-talkiness being generally "assumed." And look — it's not as if the only way to fight this legend is by pretending that the polar opposite is true instead. McCain is hardly the most devious politician ever to take the national stage. But there's plenty of evidence that his MO is to get outsized credit for a very small number of mavericky stands while spending about 98% of his political life doing all the usual things that career politicians do. He hangs with lobbyists, he does favors for big contributors, he waffles on positions that might hurt him, he panders to constituencies whose votes he needs, and he very rarely takes a politically risky stand on anything. In other words, he's just a normal pol with a really good PR shop.

And for all the talk about how ambitious Hillary is, does anyone really doubt that McCain has her well beaten on that score? He ran as a conservative bulldog in 2000, he moderated his positions and seriously considered switching parties to run as VP in 2004, and then switched back to Mr. Conservative afterward to prep for yet another run in 2008. McCain really, really, REALLY wants to be president. Isn't it about time someone noticed that?

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

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By: Kevin Drum

GROWING PAINS FOR AL-QAEDA....Following up on recent reports suggesting that al-Qaeda, once a state-of-the-art user of the internet, is finding it difficult to adapt to the growth of interactive Web technology, the LA Times today summarizes the discontent that's growing in AQ's ranks:

A litany of complaints target Osama bin Laden's network and its affiliates for their actions in Iraq and North Africa, emphasis on suicide bombings instead of political action and tepid support for, or outright antagonism toward, militant groups pressing the Palestinian cause.

The criticism apparently has grown serious enough that Al Qaeda's chief strategist, Ayman Zawahiri, felt compelled to solicit online questions. He responded in an audio message released this month. For more than 90 minutes, Bin Laden's second-in-command tried to defuse the anger.

....Such rifts have been emerging for several years, but they have become increasingly contentious lately, in cyberspace and on the streets of some Arab countries. In addition to Zawahiri, Al Qaeda leaders, including Bin Laden himself, have gone on a public relations offensive. In October, Bin Laden asked followers for forgiveness for the deaths of civilians in Iraq.

Marc Lynch has some thoughts about Zawahiri's online Q&A here, ending with this:

His rhetoric suggests neither the urgency of imminent defeat nor the excitement of impending victory. He regrets the divisions in the Sunni community, but expects (or at least hopes) that they can be overcome and urges his audiences to keep the faith for a long jihad which will ultimately prevail. He doesn't expect the US to withdraw any time soon, but is happy to provide whatever statements are necessary to convince the Americans to stay. The overall tone is one of... dare I say it... strategic patience.

Not sure what to make of all this, but that's the latest.

Kevin Drum 11:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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By: Rachel Morris

I realize this isn't a foreign policy gaffe of the same proportions as Goolsbee-gate or sniper-gate. But as a native of New Zealand, I feel obliged to draw your attention to an incident in which Hillary Clinton may have gravely insulted this small but very important nation. Asked by Newsweek (seemingly apropos of nothing), if she "had any good jokes," Clinton offered:

"Here's a good one. Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand: her opponents have observed that in the event of a nuclear war, the two things that will emerge from the rubble are the cockroaches and Helen Clark. [Laughs]"

Setting Hillary's sense of humor aside for a moment (the joke doesn't get funnier even if you happen to know something about New Zealand politics), Helen Clark is the current prime minister of New Zealand.

The diplomatic ramifications of this become even more dire when you consider that New Zealanders have been somewhat skeptical about Hillary Clinton ever since she met Sir Edmund Hillary, the first mountaineer to climb Everest, and mentioned that she had been named after him. It was later pointed out that Sir Edmund climbed Mt Everest six years after Hillary Clinton was born.

More here.

Rachel Morris 2:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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April 23, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Senator Tom Harkin (D–Iowa), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, on why he's unable to eliminate the $5.2 billion "direct payment" program for farmers even though farm incomes are skyrocketing:

"I don't have the votes. People love free money."

By the way, since I'm sure you're dying to know, the formula for direct payments to, say, corn farmers, is: DPcorn = (Payment rate)corn x (Payment yield)corn x [(Base acres)corn 0.85 x]. More excrutiating details here.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE HIGH ROAD....The North Carolina Republican Party is planning to run an ad that will reference "controversial figures from Obama's past" and both John McCain and the national party say they're appalled:

On a landing strip near Inez, Ky., RNC Chairman Mike Duncan said he put in a call this morning to the chairwoman of the North Carolina Republican Party. "I left a voicemail encouraging her not to run the ad," he said....A few minutes later, McCain weighed in himself. "We asked them not to run it. I am sending them an email as we speak asking them to take it down."

Wow! A voicemail and an email! These guys are really pulling out all the stops, aren't they?

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By: Kevin Drum

SMALL TOWNS....Tyler Cowen compiles his (impressive!) list of "anti-American attitudes." Among them is this:

4. I could not live in rural America and be happy.

Perhaps this is food related? Tyler's a foodie, and there's not a lot of interesting ethnic food in the sticks. I, on the other hand, could pretty much subsist on burgers and fries every day if it came down to it, so I'd do fine.

Overall, I've always had a hard time identifying with the largely esthetic dislike so many people have for one style of living or another. I grew up (and still live in) the suburbs, so obviously I don't have a problem with suburbs. But I like big cities too and I think I'd enjoy living in New York or Boston or London if the chance arose. (And I adore subways — though I've always wondered if I'd adore them quite as much if I had to rely on them on a daily basis.) As for small towns, they've always seemed attractive too when I've traveled through them. Very tranquil and quiet. I like that, and as long as broadband is available I can do my job just fine.

Of course, all this might change if I actually lived in those places instead of briefly reacting to them as I passed through. Jackhammers at night would dull the luster of New York, and neighbors who didn't like me because I write a godless liberal blog might make Peoria less welcoming. Who knows? At this point, picking up and moving would be such a huge pain in the ass that it's vanishingly unlikely. Sheer laziness and inertia will probably keep me in the burbs forever.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE McCAIN BUBBLE....Jon Cohn notes that despite the grueling, muddy, endless Democratic primary campaign — complete with Wrightgate, Bittergate, Bowlinggate, Tuzlagate, etc. — Gallup's tracking polls that match up Obama and Clinton vs. John McCain have stayed as flat as Tom Frank's Kansas prairie over the past month. None of this stuff has helped McCain by even a percentage point. He was stuck at 45% a month ago and he's stuck at 45% today. Jon takes a guess at what's going on:

That 45 percent figure represents a ceiling of his support.

After all, barring some outside shock to the political system, there is no reason to think McCain's numbers will go up. People already have overwhelmingly positive feelings about him — stronger than about either of the Democratic candidates. They see him as a likeable, principled war hero whom they trust on national security. Very few realize that he has supported privatizing Social Security, that he opposes universal health insurance, that he supports free trade without qualification, and so on. Once the voters learn these things, at least some of them are likely to abandon him.

If anything, McCain has the look of an Internet stock circa 1999: Great numbers, lousy fundamentals.

This seems mostly right to me. It could prove to be wrong if the Democratic campaign goes all the way to the convention and turns into 1972, but assuming that Hillary faces reality a little sooner than that, I don't think much harm will be done to Democratic chances in the fall.

Mainly this is because I agree with Jon and then some: McCain simply isn't as strong a candidate as people seem to think he is. Factors working against him include Bush fatigue, a declining economy, his age, his need to pander heavily to the Christian right, his hawkishness in a year when the public isn't feeling very hawkish, his history of flip flopping for transparently political reasons, and a portfolio of extremely unpopular positions (like privatizing Social Security) that Democrats can make a lot of hay with in the fall. What's more — and go ahead, call me an optimist — I suspect that at some point there's going to be a press backlash against McCain. His media image is a bubble, sustained by a sort of childlike faith, and once that faith starts to wobble — something that may already have started — the bubble is likely to pop. Before long, I suspect that a lot of reporters are going to start recognizing his faux openness as more faux than open.

Of course, this all assumes that Hillary Clinton decides not to be completely suicidal and take down the party in a huge ball of flames. But I don't think she will. Even the Clintons have to bow to reality eventually.

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KILL MY DONKEY IF YOU MUST, BUT DON'T SCREW WITH MY CELLPHONE....Laura King reports that Afghans are getting pissed off at the Taliban:

For the last two months, Taliban fighters have been blowing up telecommunications towers, with the aim of preventing NATO-led forces from hunting them down via cellphone signals. It could hardly have been a worse public-relations move for the insurgency.

...."I'm so, so furious about this," sputtered businessman Rahim Agha. "Why do they have to do this to us? Why can't they just turn off their phones?"

Yeah! Why can't they just turn off their phones? Damn terrorists, always blowing stuff up.

But this does sort of perplex me: what's the point of blowing up the towers? If the Taliban fighters do that, they can't use their cellphones either, can they? So what's the point? For that matter, why not buy up lots of cheap cellphones and use them to confuse the NATO forces? Seems like there must be something more to this story.

In any case, this is another example of how both sides in a guerrilla war have the same problem of fighting hard enough to win but not so hard that they lose the support of the surrounding populace. It's a tough balancing act. King continues: "The Taliban, though, may be reconsidering its highly unpopular campaign. Commanders have been quoted as saying they are aware of the angry public backlash and may allow the resumption of normal service."

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SYRIA UPDATE....From the LA Times:

CIA officials will tell Congress on Thursday that North Korea had been helping Syria build a plutonium-based nuclear reactor, a U.S. official said, a disclosure that could touch off new resistance to the administration's plan to ease sanctions on Pyongyang.

The CIA officials will tell lawmakers that they believe the reactor would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons but was destroyed before it could do so, the U.S. official said, apparently referring to a suspicious installation in Syria that was bombed last year by Israeli warplanes.

Apparently this isn't expected to affect our current negotiations with North Korea aimed at shutting down plutonium production at their nuclear facility in Yongbyon.

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LIVE BY THE WEB, DIE BY THE WEB....This is a few weeks old, but Daniel Kimmage, last seen analyzing the media strategy of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, is back with a report on al-Qaeda's media strategy. He thinks they may need a new CIO:

"Al-Qaeda, which was very, very advanced and very, very impressive in its use of new technology, is, I think, a bit behind the curve," Kimmage says. "They are sort of stuck in Web 1.0. They are producing what they think is the coolest content, the best videos, the most impressive press releases. And they are creating the most sophisticated — the best network — to distribute it to the web. What's missing is interactivity in user-generated content — a world in which users generate a lot of the content and in which people what to interact with others. Al-Qaeda really seems stuck in the old model.

"In 2006, Al-Qaeda released a big position paper and they warned their supporters against creating their own content. They said this was 'media exuberance' and that their supporters should let the official distribution and production groups handle this," Kimmage continues. "Even when Al-Qaeda has tried to be interactive, it is quite old-fashioned. So the question that we end up with is: Al-Qaeda — which had done so well using the Internet to spread its message over the last few years — are they now doomed to fade with this new more interactive and user-generated network? And will they be replaced by a much larger, much more integrated, much freer, much more empowered world in which it is very difficult to control messages and in which no one has a monopoly on information?"

Kimmage concludes that the desire of Al-Qaeda's media-production teams to strictly control the messages being put out on the Internet could ultimately backfire, causing Al-Qaeda to lose support from its sympathizers.

I'll admit it: I've always thought that "Web 2.0" was mostly marketing hooey. But if it turns out to be responsible for the decline of al-Qaeda, then sign me up as a true believer. Who would have guessed that blog commenters would turn out to be the Achilles heel of the international jihadist movement?

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THE EVEN NEWER NEW LEFT....In Dissent this month, Brian Morton writes that bloggers are the new New Left:

I'm thinking of people like Joshua Micah Marshall (the man behind Talking Points Memo); Eric Alterman, the Nation columnist, author of many books, and blogger for Media Matters for America; Ezra Klein (The American Prospect); Kevin Drum (the Washington Monthly); Glenn Greenwald (Salon); Matthew Yglesias (the Atlantic); Bob Somerby (the Daily Howler); Rick Perlstein (the Campaign for America's Future); and the writer who goes by the name of Digby who blogs for her own website, digbysblog.

....Because most of these writers are very young, they're not afraid of being red-baited, and this fearlessness in some curious fashion makes them freer to mount radical critiques of U. S. policy than older generations of writers grouped around Dissent and schooled in the socialist tradition.

The whole piece is a really, really nice tribute to the lefty blogosphere, which means that it's totally ungrateful of me to kvetch about this one point, but....um....you know how us bloggers are.

In order, the (approximate) ages of the bloggers he mentions are 39, 48, 23, 49, 40, 26, 60, 39, and 47. Matt and Ezra might fairly be described as "very young," but not the rest of us. It's true that none of us are socialists though.

I only mention this because of the persistent notion in the media that bloggers and blog readers are all a bunch of kids. But it just ain't so. The age distribution of the political blogosphere is actually pretty much the same as the country at large.

On another note, Morton also says that "these writers share a politics that is interested in deep-going social reform — you could say it's a social-democratic politics, although few of them would use that term." I wonder if that's true? With a few caveats that's basically how I think of myself, and I wonder how many other liberal bloggers do too?

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April 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WHERE'S MY FLYING CAR?....Paul Krugman suggests that energy technology hasn't advanced much in recent decades and then adds this:

I'd actually suggest that this is true not just for energy but for our ability to manipulate the physical world in general: 2001 didn't look much like 2001, and in general material life has been relatively static. (How do the changes in the way we live between 1958 and 2008 compare with the changes between 1908 and 1958? I think the answer is obvious.)

I agree — though I'd mention the biotech revolution as an exception. (And note that Krugman isn't talking about computers here, only technologies that "manipulate the physical world.") I think it's because we haven't had another big breakthrough since the electrification revolution in the early 20th century.

Discuss.

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HILLARY WINS....So I guess Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary. What's more, she seems to have won by roughly the same margin she would have won by even if she and Barack Obama hadn't just spent $40 million there.

In other words, the campaign was not only pointless, but pointless and wildly expensive. On to North Carolina!

POSTSCRIPT: And what does it all mean? Beats me. All the stuff that everyone's been talking about for the past six weeks, I guess.

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THE KOSOVO QUANDARY....Liberal internationalist types tend to believe that non-defensive military action shouldn't be undertaken unless it's authorized by the UN. But Kosovo wasn't authorized by the UN, and most liberal internationalists seem to think it was a worthy effort anyway. Matt Yglesias, blogging about his new book over at TPMCafe, ponders this:

It's a tough question for the liberal internationalist because generally speaking I would like to have my cake and eat it too here. Kosovo mostly accomplished good things, but the process — moving in without Security Council authorization — isn't something I can strictly speaking approve of. And yet, I think some important things were accomplished there. How can the contradiction be resolved?

[A bit of hemming and hawing....]

But at long last if the Gods of logic say to me that I can't both defend Kosovo in retrospect and attack adventurism in the future, I say to heck with it. I think one major problem with the Democratic side during the pre-war debate over Iraq is that so many leading politicians, practitioners, and pundits coming out of the 1990s were personally invested in Kosovo in a way that made it difficult for them to concede that, yes, there was something a bit dodgy about what went down there.

I think Matt concedes too much here. The primary criticism of the Kosovo operation is that, having failed to get UN approval, we went "forum shopping" and ended up getting NATO approval instead. But if we can do that for Kosovo, what's to stop any future invasion that we feel like undertaking? Like, say, Iraq.

But there's an important distinction here and an important question: just how much constraint on our freedom of action do you support? Requiring UN approval obviously places a considerable constraint on our ability to take offensive action. Requiring the approval of an existing security organization — maybe the UN, maybe not — is a little more relaxed, but still constrains our actions considerably since there are only a limited number of such organizations around. Requiring nothing but a "coalition of the willing" doesn't constrain us at all.

So how much constraint do you think we should place on ourselves? If your answer is "a lot," you'll opt for UN approval or nothing. If your answer is "none," you'll opt for ad hoc coalitions.

But if you're somewhere in between — neither a believer in sanctifying the UN as the sole arbiter of international action nor a believer that unfettered unilateralism is good for America — then you'll look for some middle course. And relying on the unanimous consent of an existing, internationally recognized security body might be that middle course. It's still a pretty fair constraint on unilateralism, but it doesn't go to the opposite extreme of allowing, say, China or Russia to unilaterally obstruct military action even if 90% of the world (or the relevant region) thinks it's a good idea.

Taken on those terms, Kosovo was an acceptable offensive action but Iraq wasn't. And those aren't bad terms. I'd like to see the United States take a far more proactive role in building up the authority and effectiveness of the UN, but for a lot of obvious reasons I've never been comfortable outsourcing our military policy entirely to the Security Council. Kosovo is a pretty good example of why. So sign me up for a version of liberal internationalism that's a smidge more relaxed than that.

Kevin Drum 7:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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McCAIN'S WORLD....John McCain says he'll reduce federal spending $160 billion if he's elected president. But where's it going to come from?

Asked Sunday where he would find spending cuts, Sen. McCain mentioned ethanol subsidies, sugar-price supports and payments to wealthy farmers. "We're going to scrub every institution of government," he said on ABC's "This Week." "Is there any American that doesn't believe that there's tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars that can be saved?"

I'd guess McCain is right: pretty much every American does think there are veritable tanker cars of money to be saved by eliminating all the programs that only benefit other people. Like, say, ethanol subsidies, sugar-price supports and payments to wealthy farmers — all of which don't benefit me and therefore seem like dandy places to cut the budget.

But all jesting aside, the audacity of McCain's economic plan is really pretty stunning. I'm well used to sums not adding up in presidential campaigns, and for the most part I'm willing to shrug and consider it part of the grand American political tradition, like eating fried pork rinds at the Iowa state fair or promising to get tough on China. But McCain has really upped the ante. His tax plan is such a blatant pander to corporations and the wealthy that it takes even a cynic's breath away, and his insistence that he'll slash spending by gargantuan amounts while simultaneously refusing to say what he'll cut is unparallelled in recent memory. Everyone does this kind of stuff to some extent, but McCain seems to have learned from the Bush presidency that on the economic front you can basically say anything you want and nobody will call you to account for it. So why not shoot for the moon?

Besides, right now everyone is caught up with waffles and 3 am phone calls. Who cares about a bunch of nerdy facts and figures? I'm sure that McCain, straight talker that he is, will fill in the details soon.

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THE LONG MARCH TO NOVEMBER....Michael Scherer reports that Floyd Brown, the guy responsible for the Willie Horton ad in 1988, is now setting his sights on Barack Obama with a new spot scheduled to run in North Carolina:

The new ad recounts the deaths of three Chicago residents in 2001 at the hands of criminal gangs. "That same year, a Chicago state senator named Barack Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders," an ominous female narrator intones. "So the question is, can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"

....Later this week, Brown said he plans to debut a second ad, focusing on Democratic support for giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, which he says will also be aired in North Carolina. The second ad will be paid for by Citizens for a Safe and Prosperous America, the 527 group, which can accept donations of any amount. "This is a long march to November," Brown said. "Right now it's beginning a process that gives us the information to succeed in August and September."

No big surprise here, and it's not clear if Brown really has much backing. What's more, these particular ads don't even sound all that effective. Still, the games are beginning. Fasten your seatbelts.

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VACCINE UPDATE....Noting that Barack Obama has joined John McCain in pandering to the notion that vaccines cause autism, Megan McArdle says:

I know: it's straight-up public choice theory. Parents who think that vaccines cause autism will vote on the issue, while people who think that this is bunk will not. But couldn't they just keep quiet?

Unfortunately, probably not. After a couple of recent posts about vaccines I discovered something: the anti-vaccine crowd is really, really obsessed on this subject, and I doubt that they'd accept silence as an answer. I don't generally get a huge amount of email, but my vaccine posts generated the second biggest chunk of email I've ever gotten on an issue. (Ron Paul remains in first place by a mile, though.) So it's my guess that there's more than just vote pandering at work here: basically, a brief suggestion that "we need to investigate everything" gets these folks off your back. Conversely, a straightforward acknowledgment that thimerosal doesn't cause autism will bring down the forces of hell. Votes aside, who needs the grief over an issue that most people have never even heard of?

That said, I'll confess that I learned a few new things from all the email. The biggest one is also the most obvious: namely that vaccines are different today than when I was a kid. It's not just a matter of half a dozen shots for polio, measles, etc. Today's children get a years-long course of several dozen vaccines, and the sheer size of the standard vaccine course is sort of scary to some parents. I get that. What's more, it's a bipartisan fear: a lot of conservative parents have been taught to distrust the scientific establishment and a lot of liberal parents have been taught to distrust the government and the pharmaceutical industry. So it's a twofer. Everyone figures there's some bureacracy out there determined to screw them over and then cover it up.

Still, what struck me was that even the more reasonable people who emailed me offered virtually no evidence of any harm from vaccines. And when I surfed around some of the anti-vaccine sites, the evidence on display there was surprisingly thin too. I say "surprisingly" because everything has side effects. For something that's used as widely as childhood vaccines I'd expect a fair amount of reaction even if they were all as safe as spring water. But there's really not much there. A few vaccines seem to be (maybe, possibly) associated with a few rare diseases, but that's about it. For the most part, they seem to be safer than spring water.

But there's not much political benefit in saying that. What's more, regardless of what you think about either the vaccine lobby or the anti-vaccine lobby, it makes perfect sense to spend a fair amount of money continuing to study vaccine safety. We don't know everything about how the immune system develops, after all, and the outbreak of so many childhood "epidemics" in recent years (autism, athsma, peanut allergies, etc. etc.) quite naturally makes some people wonder what's going on — and wonder whether the effect of vaccines on the immune system might be at fault. This stuff is all worth following up. Still, there's no evidence of it so far, and it would be nice if our future leaders could promise to keep up the funding and the investigation but also make it clear that current vaccines seem to be safe and effective and kids are way better off getting them than not getting them. Deal?

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PRETENDING TO NEGOTIATE....It looks like Michael O'Hanlon has now swallowed the neoconservative Kool-Aid whole and isn't bothering to try to hide it anymore. In the Washington Times today, he maps out the only reason that he supports negotiations with Iran:

U.S. diplomatic contact with Iran, the sooner the better, still makes sense — not because it will likely produce any breakthroughs, but because what Professor Victor Cha calls "hawkish engagement" can set the U.S. up more effectively to galvanize the kind of growing international pressure on Iran that is probably our only long-term hope of producing better behavior from Teheran....Only by patiently trying to work with Iran, and consistently failing to make progress, will we gradually convince Bush-haters and U.S. doubters around the world that the real problem does not lie in Washington.

....While George Bush has not handled Iran or Iraq well during most of his administration, to equate his mistakes with those of Mr. Ahmadinejad, or forgive what Iran has been trying to do in the region based on U.S. transgressions and mistakes, would be badly wrong. Yet many do just that. Until they change their minds, all we can do is be patient, keep fighting in Iraq, keep gathering intelligence throughout the region — and keep trying to prove we are the reasonable ones.

There you have it. Our only option is to "keep fighting in Iraq" until we manage to prove to the world that we're the reasonable ones. This leads Matt Yglesias to observe that O'Hanlon probably figures that "his bridges to the Democratic Party are sufficiently burned that he's now looking for a post in the McCain administration."

I guess. He sure seems to now be firmly invested in the conservative/neoconservative tradition that says treaties are just scraps of paper and you should never negotiate or try to coexist with an enemy, and that puts him firmly in McCain territory.

Anyway, for a somewhat broader view of the possibilities with Iran, try this Jeffrey Fleishman piece in the LA Times today. Rapprochement with Iran would certainly be neither easy nor quick — and in the end might turn out to be impossible — but good faith efforts are hardly doomed to fail. Somebody willing to consider the possibility of changing the game might very well change the game.

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HOUSING UPDATE....No joy on the home front:

Sales of existing homes fell in March while the median home price declined, compared with the price a year ago, as a severe slump in housing showed no signs of abating.

The National Association of Realtors said that sales of existing single-family homes and condominiums dropped by 2 percent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.93 million units.

The median price of a home sold last month dropped to $200,700, a decline of 7.7 percent from the median price a year ago. That was the second-biggest year-over-year price decline on records dating back to 1999.

So how's your neighborhood doing? You can check it out on this interactive map of home foreclosures. Turns out there are currently no foreclosures in my immediate neighborhood (hooray!), but my broader neighborhood is feeling some distinct stress (alert level orange on their color-coded map).

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"A CONSTITUENT MATTER"....The New York Times tells the story today of Donald Diamond ("sometimes referred to as 'The Donald,' Arizona's answer to Donald Trump"), a wealthy Arizona real estate developer who is one of John McCain's top campaign fundraisers. A decade ago, Diamond wanted to buy some land at a California Army base that was being closed:

When Mr. Diamond wanted to buy land at the base, Fort Ord, Mr. McCain assigned an aide who set up a meeting at the Pentagon and later stepped in again to help speed up the sale, according to people involved and a deposition Mr. Diamond gave for a related lawsuit.

....The McCain aide's assistance with the Army helped Mr. Diamond complete a purchase in 1999 that he soon turned over for a $20 million profit.

....For the California projects, the campaign said the McCain aide arranged the introduction to an Army official for Mr. Diamond's team as "a constituent matter." The campaign said it had no knowledge of the aide helping to expedite the sale.

Indeed. A "constituent matter." McCain's pal managed to snag this prime coastal land — complete with special water rights — for $250,000 and then sell it two years later for $30 million. That's some serious constituent service. Diamond himself, though, is a little more forthcoming about the ways of the world:

Associates say he revels in his ability to "work the system," as his friend and sometimes partner, Stanley Abrams, put it: "Nobody is as connected as Donald."

Mr. Diamond is close to most of Arizona's Congressional delegation and is candid about his expectations as a fund-raiser. "I want my money back, for Christ's sake. Do you know how many cocktail parties I have to go to?"

Quit whining, pal. Nobody ever said that influence peddling was supposed to be easy. Especially when you're dealing with a maverick straight talker like John McCain, who everybody knows never does special favors for big campaign contributors. Just ask him.

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April 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

EXPELLED....I went out today and saw Expelled, Ben Stein's documentary that posits a vast, worldwide conspiracy of Darwinists who are shutting down legitimate scientific inquiry into Intelligent Design. The official debunking is here if you're interested, but I went mostly because I was curious about how good a film it is purely from an agit-prop standpoint.

Answer: not very good. Stein's basic problem is that during the first half hour or so he keeps his film sounding fairly reasonable. Maybe ID proponents really are getting the shaft! But it's also deadly dull. After 30 minutes I was wondering how long he could possibly stretch this stuff out.

Then it picked up. Unfortunately for Stein and the IDers, it did so only by becoming increasingly unhinged. Stein spends the final half hour wandering around Dachau and telling us outright that his real motivation for attacking evolution isn't any real flaw in the theory, but his belief that Darwinism leads directly to Nazi-ism, eugenics, atheism, the breakdown of morals, and mass slaughter. Can't have that, so evolution needs to go too.

Maybe this is an institutional problem with makers of political documentaries. After all, Michael Moore did much the same thing in Sicko when he decided to finish up the movie with a paean to the healthcare system of Cuba. This didn't really do much except forfeit his ability to persuade anyone who was skeptical of his case in the first place, and that's what Stein's finale does too. Even with the very careful editing he applies to his interviews in order to keep out the lunatic screeching (up until the very last couple of minutes, anyway), it's hard to believe that anyone who's not already a true believer will come out of Expelled convinced of Stein's case. Who knows? It might even have the opposite effect.

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OBAMA AND THE PRESS....Barack Obama got annoyed with a reporter this morning who tried to ask him a question, snapping "Why can't I just eat my waffle?" Jay Newton-Small comments:

Journalists in general don't relish asking politicians questions in awkward situations, like on a golf course or over a waffle. But sometimes our hands are forced: Obama hasn't given a press conference in 10 days and the questions, some of them — like Hamas — rather important, are starting to build up. If he wins the nomination he'll be running again John McCain, whose philosophy is to give the press total access to the point of saturation; Obama might consider holding avails with a little more regularity. Then, maybe, reporters would let him to eat in peace.

I'll confess that I don't understand this, but it's been reported too many times to dismiss it. Obama just doesn't give the press much access, sometimes shutting them down for weeks at a time. Why? Does this make sense to anyone else as a campaign strategy? I'm baffled by it.

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TWO CHEERS FOR POLITICAL CORRECTNESS....Henry Farrell passes along this charming poster used by the Northern League in the recent Italian elections. "Guess who comes last?" it asks, followed by "For your rights on housing, employment, and healthcare."

(Or something like that. Better translations are welcome in comments. UPDATE: Thanks for the help. "Sanitá" = healthcare.)

As it happens, part of the reason the left lost the recent elections in Italy is because its leader, Walter "the Italian Obama" Veltroni, decided to purge the extremists from his coalition and create a genuine center-left party for the first time in recent Italian history. Conversely, the candidate of the right, the famously corrupt and reptilian Silvio Berlusconi, happily teamed up with the Northern League, which Henry accurately describes as "one of the most genuinely revolting political parties in the Western world." Draw your own lessons.

I don't have much to say beyond that except for one thing: say what you will about the persistence of racism and xenophobia in America, but no national political party here could get away with creating a poster like this one, and no national politician could get away with saying the kind of stuff that routinely spews from the mouths of the Northern League's leadership. I blame political correctness.

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THE DEBATE....David Brooks, almost alone among pundits, thought last week's ABC debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was great. But Ross Douthat doesn't think Brooks's praise went far enough:

I think it's worth mounting a more vigorous defense of playing up issues like Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright or Hillary's fibs about Tuzla or even the essentially absurd flag-on-the-lapel controversy. I don't think these topics matter just because they're "symbolic"; I think they matter because they're personal, because they tell us something (or seem to tell us something) about the psychology of the person we're being asked to vote for.

....[W]hen we elect a new chief executive, we aren't just electing to live with their policy positions. We're deciding to live with their personalities — their sexual appetites and Daddy issues, their spouses and their friends, their religious beliefs and their psychodramas — for four or eight long years. (Or more, in our dynastic age, since we've been in Bushworld since 1988, and Clintonland since '92.)

Personality, character, and judgment matter. No argument there. But the problem with Wednesday's debate hinged on several things. First, there's that parenthetical caveat: "(or seem to tell us something)." We should at least try to make a distinction between issues that really do illuminate character and those that only seem to — that have become media feeding frenizies even though they're essentially trivial. Rather than simply tell us that these things are personal, I'd like to hear a defense of how they're illuminating. I don't think many of us felt very illuminated by the Charlie and George show last week.

Second, the biggest complaint about the debate was not that trivial issues were raised — this is America, land of the free and home of Matt Drudge, after all — but that they were raised for an excruciatingly relentless full hour before any other subject was so much as mentioned. A few minutes on Wright and a few minutes on Tuzla would have been fine. Those things are in the news and not everyone has followed them in detail. But 53 consecutive, soul-sucking minutes of this stuff? These people are running for president, not trying out for Survivor.

Third, and maybe most important, we only have to live with presidential psychodramas if we choose to live with presidential psychodramas. I don't think anyone is arguing that every debate ought to be a wonky snoozefest, but when we keep raising the stakes in the race to elevate the inane to the level of a national obsession — when we turn debates into political versions of Access Hollywood — we're actively supporting the decades-long trend to turn the White House into a national psychodrama. By complaining about this, rather than praising it, we're suggesting that maybe this trend has already gone quite far enough.

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By: Kevin Drum

EXPECTATIONS....Drudge is running a big headline claiming that Hillary Clinton's internal polling shows her 11 points ahead in Pennsylvania. Was this a deliberate leak from HRC to Drudge? Josh Marshall doesn't think so:

Here's why.

The game is heavily about expectations at this point. And the public polls are showing a fairly close race. Far better for the Clinton camp to keep expectations right there and surprise people with a low double-digit win. Switching expectations to 10 points, only to meet those expectations makes no sense, especially since Clinton started 6 weeks ago with a 15 or 20 point margin.

I'm not so sure about this. I think we're beyond the expectations game. Better to get the word out that "momentum is building," or some such, in order to rally the troops, set the tone for news coverage, and try to regain a little bit of that old "inevitability" magic. I have no idea where Drudge got his leak, or even whether it's true, but at a do-or-die stage like the one Hillary is in now, excitement and momentum are more important than the media expectations game, I think.

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE AD NONSENSE....Are the pro-Obama forces seriously trying to get their troops outraged over this latest ad from Hillary Clinton? Just because it contains a ten-second sequence of presidential crises (Depression, Pearl Harbor, gas crisis, Katrina, etc.) and flashes a half-second clip of Osama bin Laden as part of it? Spare me. Are Democratic political ads no longer even allowed to mention the fact that the next president is going to have to deal with the war on terror?

However, there is something odd about this ad. "You need to be ready for anything," the narrator intones portentiously — before suddenly shifting to a chirpy voice: "Especially now, with two wars, oil prices skyrocketing" blah blah blah. Am I just imaginging this? Or does the narrator really use that tonal change that you most often hear about halfway through trailers for romantic comedies, when the filmmakers want to make it clear that, no worries, everything actually turns out OK in the end? This is, of course, exactly the point they're trying to get across in this ad (vote for Hillary and everything will be fine), but it still seemed a little jarring.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

WALKING AWAY....In phase one of the foreclosure crisis, distressed homeowners started to mail in their keys to the bank and walk away from their houses. Apparently we're now in phase two: homeowners are beginning to set fire to their houses instead. What comes next?

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By: Kevin Drum

PENN-TACULAR....Do you hate Mark Penn? Doesn't everyone? Then Michelle Cottle has the dirt you crave. Just click here.

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By: Kevin Drum

SEDER SOCIOLOGY....I am not making this up. Here is the start of Bill Kristol's New York Times column today:

Last week, in the midst of the excitement over the pope's visit, the Clinton, Obama and McCain campaigns found time to issue Passover greetings. They were of course staff-produced, and somewhat formulaic. Still, differences among formulaic statements can be revealing.

That's right: Kristol wrote an entire column comparing pro forma Passover press releases from the three presidential campaigns. Apparently he's trying to put the Onion out of business.

Oh, and not to give anything away, but his conclusion? That you should vote for John McCain. Fascinating, no?

Kevin Drum 1:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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April 20, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SELLING THE WAR.....Today the New York Times tells us the story of the Bush administration's ingenious media strategy for selling the Iraq war back in 2002. The key innovation was to bypass traditional journalists and instead focus their attention on military analysts, who turned out to be outstandingly pliable as regurgitators of Pentagon talking points:

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon's dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called "information dominance." In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent.

....In the months after Sept. 11, as every network rushed to retain its own all-star squad of retired military officers, Ms. Clarke and her staff sensed a new opportunity. To Ms. Clarke's team, the military analysts were the ultimate "key influential" — authoritative, most of them decorated war heroes, all reaching mass audiences.

....The Pentagon's regular press office would be kept separate from the military analysts. The analysts would instead be catered to by a small group of political appointees, with the point person being Brent T. Krueger, another senior aide to Ms. Clarke....Over time, the Pentagon recruited more than 75 retired officers, although some participated only briefly or sporadically. The largest contingent was affiliated with Fox News, followed by NBC and CNN, the other networks with 24-hour cable outlets.

.... At the Pentagon, members of Ms. Clarke's staff marveled at the way the analysts seamlessly incorporated material from talking points and briefings as if it was their own.

"You could see that they were messaging," Mr. Krueger said. "You could see they were taking verbatim what the secretary was saying or what the technical specialists were saying. And they were saying it over and over and over." Some days, he added, "We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You'd look at them and say, 'This is working.' "

Later, after the war had begun and the insurgency was in full swing, the analysts were invited on a trip to Iraq that was "scripted to the minute" in order to present a relentlessly sunny picture. "Inside the Pentagon and at the White House, the trip was viewed as a masterpiece in the management of perceptions, not least because it gave fuel to complaints that 'mainstream' journalists were ignoring the good news in Iraq."

Indeed. And of course, all these retired generals made sure to keep up the happy talk because they didn't want to lose access — access that was vital not just to their network gigs, but also to their primary jobs as defense industry consultants. Say the wrong thing, and perhaps your client doesn't get that $10 million contract they were hoping for.

But it turns out that at least a few of them rebelled. Not many, but a few. For the whole grim story, click the link.

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April 19, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ UPDATE....The New York Times reports that Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has mostly melted away in Basra. Nobody quite knows why, or whether it's permanent, or what it means. But there's also this:

Mr. Sadr issued a statement on Saturday threatening that he would declare "open war until liberation" against the government if the crackdown against his followers did not cease, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, said the government had abused the trust he tried to sow in August by declaring a unilateral truce.

Whether to counter allegations that Iran actively supported the Mahdi Army, or simply because, as many Iraqis have recently speculated, Mr. Sadr's stock has recently fallen in Iranian eyes, the Iranian ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, on Saturday expressed his government's strong support for the Iraqi assault on Basra. Even more strikingly, he called the militias in Basra "outlaws," the same term that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has used to describe them.

.... Mr. Maliki's abrupt assault on Basra last month has been widely criticized as being poorly planned. But it is believed to have been encouraged by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI], a crucial element of his governing coalition. Many members of the armed wing of the council, called the Badr Organization, joined the government's security forces early in the Iraq conflict, and have been battling the Sadr-led forces. Mr. Sadr's political movement is also an important rival of the supreme council.

Because leaders of the council and its armed wing spent years and sometimes decades in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's regime, it was assumed that the silence of the Badr Organization during the Basra offensive indicated that Iran had given at least tacit approval for the move.

Mr. Qumi's statements now give strong support to that view. They also suggest that Iran, which has historically tried to play Shiite groups against each other in Iraq, has decided to pull back on its support for the group that American officials have continually pointed to as an Iranian-trained troublemaker: Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army.

This gibes with other recent evidence (see here) that Iran might finally have decided to stop playing both sides and instead abandon Sadr and throw more of its weight behind ISCI and the current government. The current government is, after all, more pro-Iran than Sadr has ever been, so this is hardly unthinkable.

As always, it's hard to say what's really going on here. But it's possible that the ground is shifting. This might be good news, or it might be in the "be careful what you wish for" category. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 5:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY AND MOVEON....In comments below, John B. and Cleek both want to know why I haven't commented on Hillary Clinton's dissing of MoveOn. So just for the record, here it is.

You can read her comment here. Basically, I don't think it's a big deal. The activist base of the party has opposed Clinton, so it's no big surprise that she's not very happy with them. And although it's not true that MoveOn opposed the Afghanistan war, it's such a close call that this hardly rates higher than a 1.5 on the Misrepresentation Richter Scale. Like just about everything that's happened over the past month or two, this is much ado about nothing.

But that said, I support Obama, not Hillary, and I think she's doing a lot of damage to the party by continuing her quixotic bid for the nomination instead of stepping aside and supporting the man who's now virtually certain to win. What's more, she's done a lot of stuff to piss me off lately, and the fact that I think she's endured a lot of unfairness during the campaign only goes so far. Bottom line: I've got better things to spend my energy on than defending her on this. She's got plenty of partisans of her own who can do that.

I imagine everyone has noticed that my campaign coverage has been pretty minimal over the past few weeks. That's deliberate. I'm tired of Hillary, I'm tired of the insane depths of trivia the media (and the candidates) have descended to, and I don't feel like writing much about it. I'm more interested in following the almost pathological pandering and flip-flopping coming out of John McCain's camp these days — you can practically feel the desperation if you watch closely — but it's hard for that to get a lot of traction until the Dems finish up their race. So for now, I'm mostly just watching and waiting.

Kevin Drum 5:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

CATBLOGGING RESEARCH NOTE....Today I present two propositions for your consideration. Proposition #1: A sufficiently anal-retentive person can make a graph out of just about anything, no matter how ridiculous. My evidence is the graph below, which charts the number of comments left on Friday Catblogging posts here for the past year.

Proposition #2: No matter how ridiculous a graph is, it has the potential to demonstrate something unexpected. In this case, it's the unexpected finding that interest in catblogging has skyrocketed this year. During 2007 the average number of comments per catblogging post was 34, but since the Christmas break the average number of comments has shot up to 54. On the other hand, the variance in the number of comments has gone way up too, and the raw number appears to have peaked in the first couple of months of the year and is now on a downward trend.

Why? Vote for your explanation of choice in comments:

  1. My new camera produces better pictures, thus spurring renewed interest in feline cuteness.

  2. Catblogging posts spend more time at the top of the page than they did last year.

  3. This is George Bush's last year in office, and everyone is so happy they're leaving lots of catblogging comments.

  4. This is the stupidest graph of all time.

  5. Jeez, is this a slow news day? Don't you have anything important to blog about?

We might also ponder what makes one catblogging post more popular than another. Last year, for example, the most popular post by a mile was this one. Why? Are cats in baskets really that beloved? Or was it the link to the story of Oscar the amazing death cat? Meanwhile, this year's top post — and the most discussed catblogging post of all time — is this one. As catblogging, it seems pretty unremarkable, so I figure its popularity must be due to the linked news article about the superiority of cats over dogs in the stress relief department. The #4 and #5 most popular posts were my two video catblogs, so the key to popularity seems to be (a) links to cute news stories and (b) cat videos. But what about #3? What's so special about this one?

On the flip side, the least popular catblogging post of the past year is this one. Seems pretty ordinary to me, so I don't know why it got so militantly ignored. Any ideas?

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOSE MEETS GANDER....I forgot to mention this yesterday, but John McCain finally released his income tax returns on Friday. But with a tiny, um, caveat:

Senator John McCain released his 2006 and 2007 income tax returns on Friday, showing his total taxable income was $474,104 but disclosing little of his wife's sizable wealth.

....Mrs. McCain, who has a significant stake in a beer distributorship in Phoenix that her late father helped found, is far wealthier than her husband. The company is valued at $100 million or more, published estimates say.

Now, one of the most popular parlor games in the liberal blogosphere is "Can you imagine if a Democrat did this?" Most of the time, it's kind of tiresome, but this is actually a great test case, almost one of those "natural experiments" that economists are so enthused about these days. Here's the rest of the story:

In the 2004 campaign, Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, at first said she would not release her personal income tax returns, also citing family privacy. After a torrent of criticism, Mrs. Heinz Kerry released part of her taxes that showed her to be wealthiest spouse of any presidential candidate in American history.

In other words, we don't have to imagine what would happen if a Democrat did this. We know. It would unleash a "torrent of criticism," eventually leading to at least a partial disclosure of the spousal taxes.

This time around, McCain chose not to release his wife's income tax returns even though he already knew what had happened to John Kerry when he did the same thing four years ago. Apparently he decided the media wasn't likely to make too big a deal of it in his case. Let's see if he's right.

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

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April 18, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....On the left, this is Domino's usual position as the sun rises. The only thing unusual about it is that I was awake this morning in time to take a picture of it. (And yes, I got permission to post this.)

On the right, continuing my spring garden theme of recent weeks, we have Inkblot lolling around under the blooming roses in our backyard. They're both lovely.

In other pet-related news, click here for the latest (almost certainly vain) attempt to keep ones cat off of ones keyboard. And for you canine types, Chad Orzel has a yappy infrared dog photo. (Plus another of the more common variety.)

Kevin Drum 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHO'S NOT BITTER?....Kathy G. unloads on Maureen Dowd's latest column:

There's another problem with the opening sentence of the Dowd column. "I'm not bitter." Oh Maureen — who the hell do you think you're kidding? The woman positively soaks in bitterness. Marinates in it. It oozes out of her pen and pours into just about every damn word she writes. Her bitterness has utterly corroded her soul. It's turned her into a twisted freak whose chief pleasure in life seems lie in vicious, barking-mad attacks on the only people capable of ending our long national nightmare — the Democrats. Seriously, if there is any other single person in the media who's been a more powerful enabler of Republican high crimes and misdemeanors than Modo, I don't know who it is.

Read the rest for the story of "When X Met Modo."

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By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE OPEN LETTER....Over at Mark Thoma's place you can read an open letter to ABC that characterizes this week's presidential debate as a "revolting descent into tabloid journalism." It's signed by several dozen lefty types, including me, but Alex Tabarrok has a slight demurral:

I agree. The only thing the signatories got wrong was where to send the letter. The letter should have been addressed to the American public. After all, this debate, which came in the flurry of all the tabloid journalism of the past several weeks, was the most-watched of the 2008 presidential campaign. The public got what it wanted.

I really don't think that follows. People tuned in to the debate before they had any idea what the moderators were going to do with it. And it was almost certainly the highest rated debate of the year because (a) it was on ABC, not cable, (b) it was in prime time in all time zones, (c) it's been nearly two months since the last one, and (d) interest in the Democratic race is at a fever pitch because it's coming down to the wire and it's the only game in town.

Most of the evidence, I think, indicates that the American public is far more receptive to serious policy wonkery than the press gives them credit for. They want to hear the candidates get pressed on substantive issues. Which isn't to say that tomfoolery doesn't have a place too. This is America, after all. But a full hour out of a two-hour debate? The American public has given no indication that this is what it wants.

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By: Kevin Drum

TIDBITS....The commanders of the government offensive in Basra have been recalled to Baghdad. Presumably because the Basra campaign was such a success.

In other news, missile defense still doesn't work and its supporters are still lying about it. I know, I know: dog bites man. Still.

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PILING ON....Ezra Klein on bittergate:

The Clinton campaign made a huge tactical error in jumping on the "bitter" comments themselves, rather than simply letting the media push them. If Obama had just been answering to the media, it would have been a problem. But when Clinton jumped in, he started being able to answer more attacks from Hillary Clinton.

This really threw me for a loop too. Why did the Clinton campaign do this, and do it so clumsily? The media was doing all their work for them, and if they'd taken the high road ("We should be talking about how to help working Americans, not playing gotcha over a careless remark") they would have gotten way more mileage out of the whole thing. Piling on was such a huge tactical mistake that it makes you wonder if anybody over in Hillaryland knows how to play this game.

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By: Kevin Drum

EARMARKS....Ah, earmarks. Everyone's favorite whipping boy. John McCain says he'd eliminate 'em. Not cut them back; not reform them; not limit them. Eliminate 'em. There'd not be one red cent for earmarks under a McCain presidency.

So on Wednesday ThinkProgress pointed out that aid to Israel is an earmark. What about that? Naturally, the McCain campaign rushed to backpedal. Of course aid to Israel wouldn't be cut. Don't be ridiculous. That earmark is A-OK.

So ThinkProgress went back to the books and pointed out yesterday that about $6 billion in military housing is also allocated as an earmark. What about that, Mr. Support the Troops?

All good fun. But CAP's Scott Lilly points out that there's a serious side to this. The reason McCain made himself vulnerable to this needling is because the two most serious studies of the subject suggest that total spending on earmarks is less than $20 billion — and McCain didn't think that was impressive enough. He needed a bigger number in order to buck up his bona fides as an anti-spending crusader. So he turned to an old CRS report that pegged the earmark number at $52 billion — much better! — but failed to note that it only got there by expanding the definition to include things like aid to Israel, military housing, drug eradication funds for Colombia, assistance programs to Egypt and Jordan, and humanitarian aid to Haiti. Oops.

Now, there's not much question that earmarking got wildly out of hand in the waning days of the last Republican congress. You can even make a case for eliminating earmarks entirely and leaving detailed budgeting decisions entirely up to the federal bureaucracy. But that's all that eliminating earmarks would do: move the spending decisions into other hands. It wouldn't actually reduce spending by a penny.

Personally, I've never really seen the harm in allowing members of Congress to have a certain level of influence over allocating federal funds in their states and districts. They're elected by the people, after all, and part of the whole democracy thing is that they're supposed to be the ones who have the best sense of what their constituents would like to see their tax dollars spent on. So why not allow them some control? If you keep it both transparent and modest, there's nothing really all that wrong with it.

Still, if McCain prefers the bureaucracy to have 100% control over budget allocations, that's fine. But he needs to acknowledge that the true size of all federal earmarks is small (about $18 billion or so) and that earmarks are merely a way of directing spending, not increasing it. Eliminating them won't save any money, it will just change where the money goes.

That's not very impressive as a demogogic stump speech, but it has the virtue of being honest. And Mr. Straight Talk shouldn't have a problem with that, should he?

Kevin Drum 11:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Kevin Drum

INVISIBLE WOUNDS OF WAR....Blue Girl summarizes the latest study on post traumatic stress disorder in returning Iraq/Afghanistan vets:

A new study by the RAND Corporation, released just today, pegs the number of veterans suffering from PTSD and depression at about 300,000 and the number of veterans who sustained brain injuries at about 320,000. With only one direction for those numbers to go, we are facing an immediate future where we have somewhere in the neighborhood of a million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan needing care that the VA is ill-equipped to handle — they are overstretched now, and only half of the soldiers struggling with depression, PTSD and TBI have sought treatment.

More details here.

Kevin Drum 10:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMY WATCH....The headline unemployment rate hasn't changed much over the past few months, but other employment indicators are considerably less rosy:

Last month, the hours worked by those on American payrolls dropped, compared with six months earlier, according to an index maintained by the Labor Department. The last time the index moved into negative territory was February 2001, when the economy was on the doorstep of recession. A similar slide emerged in August 1990, one month into what proved an even more severe downturn.

....At the end of last month, more than 4.9 million people were working part time either because they could not find full-time jobs or because their companies had cut hours in the face of slack business, according to a Labor Department survey. That represented an increase of 400,000 since November.

And on Wednesday, the government reported that average earnings slipped in March after accounting for the rising costs of food and fuel — the sixth consecutive month that pay failed to keep pace with inflation.

Employment is declining, average hours worked is declining, and average earnings per hour is declining. On the bright side, Google earnings are up. Yippee!

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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April 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THESAURUS QUERY....This post is a bit....odd. But I want to make sure I'm not losing my mind, so here goes.

I use the online thesaurus at reference.com a lot. Really a lot. And as my mind continues to get fuzzier with age, I imagine I'll be using it even more.

But last night something funny happened. In the past, for most ordinary word lookups, the results page would contain at least half a dozen entries (different references, different parts of speech, etc.) and each entry would contain anywhere from 10 to 30 synonyms. Today, every single search I've done has returned two or three entries with no more than five or six synonyms per entry. It's almost useless.

Does anyone else use reference.com who's had the same experience? Am I right that the number of words on the results pages has suddenly gotten cut down by 5-10x? Or am I just imagining things?

And assuming I'm not imagining things, why? Did I accidentally hit the "abridged results" button? Did the reference.com people get lots of complaints that they were returning too many words? Are they planning to start charging for more comprehensive results? Or what?

Any ideas?

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Michael Bérubé, who says David Brooks is right:

When you write, "We may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall," we know you're telling the truth, because you'll be around in the fall telling us precisely how important these things are.

I've now watched a bit of the debate on tape, though, and I also agree with Joe Klein about the problems with the second, more policy-heavy hour:

I was as dismayed with the second half of the debate — the "substantive" part — as I was with the first. The ABC moderators clearly didn't spend much time thinking about creative substantive gambits. They asked banal, lapidary questions, rather than trying to break new ground. They asked the same old Iraq troop withdrawal question, rather than using the skillful interrogation Clinton and Obama deployed during the Petraeus hearings last week as a way to dig deeper toward the heart of the issue. (Question to Clinton: "Last week, General Petraeus said — in response to your question — that the U.S. military was going to support Prime Minister Maliki's government in its assault against dissident Shi'ites, do you think that's a wise move? And if not, why do you think Petraeus is moving in that direction?")...and Charlie Gibson really needs a lesson in capital gains taxation — yes, the revenues go up (temporarily) when the rates come down, but only because traders hold onto the stocks in anticipation of the rate reduction so that they can gain higher profits. And there is an equity question here: should wealth be taxed at a lower rate than work?

I suppose there's a limit to this kind of stuff: TV audiences who aren't steeped in the minutiae of current events won't always be able to follow things like this. Still, there are ways to ask interesting questions that get beyond the banal but are still accessible to mass audiences — not questions that play games with trivia, but ones that bring up unexpected topics and force candidates to think on their feet in interesting ways. Somehow, though, that rarely seems to happen.

Would candidates give us interesting answers if moderators did this? Or would they just immediately pivot back to their stump speeches? Beats me. But it's worth a try, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

COCONUT ROAD UPDATE....If you have a good memory, you may remember a post from last year about the Coconut Road interchange in Bonita Springs. That's in Lee County, Florida, not Alaska, and no Lee County officials were interested in building the interchange. Nonetheless, Alaskan Rep. Don Young inserted a $10 million earmark in the 2005 highway bill to build it.

Asked about it last June, "Mr. Young responded with an obscene gesture," according to the New York Times. That might have been a mistake:

The Senate moved yesterday toward asking the Justice Department for a criminal investigation of a $10 million legislative earmark whose provisions were mysteriously altered after Congress gave final approval to a huge 2005 highway funding bill.

In what may become the first formal request from Congress for a criminal inquiry into one of its own special projects, top Senate Democrats and Republicans have endorsed taking action in connection with the earmark that Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, inserted into the legislation.

"It's very possible people ought to go to jail," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees highway funding.

Young's office says that a $40,000 campaign contribution from local developers had nothing to do with the earmark. It was added solely because Young was blown away by the awesomeness of their technical presentation explaining why the interchange would be a boon to the Lee County economy. Just goes to show how persuasive a good PowerPoint presentation can be, I guess. Somebody tell Bill Gates.

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By: Kevin Drum

BASRA UPDATE....Hmmm. Gareth Porter has an intriguing take on what really happened in Basra last month. He says that Gen. David Petraeus had his own plan for a massive U.S./British summer offensive against the Mahdi Army in Basra, but that it was deliberately preempted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki:

This plan for a major foreign troop deployment to the south for the first time since the U.S. battles against the Mahdi Army in April 2004 did not sit well with al-Maliki....When Vice President Dick Cheney, who had previously played the "bad cop" in the George W. Bush administration's relations with al-Maliki, visited Baghdad in mid-March, one of his objectives was to get al-Maliki to go along with the Petraeus plan.

....The Cheney visit apparently mobilised al-Maliki, but not in the way Cheney had intended. Four days later, when Petraeus met with al-Maliki's national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie to talk about the U.S. campaign plan for Basra, al-Rubaie warned Petraeus that al-Maliki had a different plan. Petraeus was apparently told that the operation would last from a week to 10 days — not the several months envisioned in the Petraeus plan.

The main point of al-Maliki's operation, however, was that it would exclude U.S. troops. As al-Maliki explained in an interview with CNN correspondent Nic Robertson Apr. 7, he had demanded that U.S. and British troops stay out of Basra, "because that would give an excuse to some militant groups to say that this is a foreign force attacking us."

Maliki's argument is that U.S. troops would have inflamed Shiite feelings in the south, and that's why he wanted them to stay out. Porter suggests that American commanders have a different theory: that Maliki wasn't really serious about eliminating the Mahdi Army and was afraid the American military might be a little too good at it.

Color me skeptical. But I'm passing it along for gossip value anyway. The Basra operation was such a shambles, and the motivations of the principals were so opaque, that I figure anything is possible. Maybe even this.

Kevin Drum 2:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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YAK YAK YAK....Western civilization has taken one more step toward its ultimate decline and fall:

The European Commission just issued new rules that pave the way for in-flight mobile phone use across Europe. It took three years of hearings and negotiations, and pressure from business travelers, airlines and manufacturers of new in-flight mobile phone systems, but Europe now has a uniform code to match up technical and licensing requirements across borders.

I don't think Rome fell because of lead in the pipes or loss of civic virtue or any of that jazz. More likely it was because someone invented the Roman equivalent of a tin can telephone and after that no one would shut up. A century later everyone was exhausted and the rest was just a mopping up operation for the Visigoths.

On the bright side, though, there's this:

After hearing customers' concerns about a chatterbox in the next seat, Lufthansa decided "we didn't want to be the first to offer this service," Lamberty said. "If we or our public have a change of heart, it would be a piece of cake to add this feature to the broadband system."

....In the fall, the International Airline Passengers Assn. sent surveys to 3,000 frequent fliers about phone use in the air. "The overwhelming conclusion," the group said, is that it would be "a source of great irritation."

Sadly, this is a mere speed bump. There isn't a businessman alive these days who thinks the home office can survive without hourly contact, and soon the unfriendly skies will be even unfriendlier than ever. The end is nigh.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TED SPREAD....The TED spread is the difference between the interest rate on 3-month treasury bills (safe as houses, um, well, really safe, anyway) and the rate banks charge each other for 3-month loans (the LIBOR rate). I'd never heard of the TED spread until a couple of months ago, but apparently it's a pretty good indication of financial jitters. When the financial markets are calm and happy and everyone is paying their bills, the spread is small. Banks lend to each other for only a small premium above what Uncle Sam charges. When fear takes over (will Bear Stearns really be able to pay back that loan?) banks raise their interest rate and the TED spread increases.

Anyhoo, Brad DeLong calls the TED spread "the consensus indicator of the depth of the current financial crunch," so I thought I'd toss it up for everyone to see. The chart below shows the TED spread for the past three years: smooth sailing until August 2007 when the subprime crisis hit, another jump in December, and then a third in March. So far, nothing the Fed has done has kept the financial markets calm for long, and after the last intervention the spread didn't even manage to recover as well as it had the during the first two crises. It went down a measly 74 basis points and then started rising again.

What happens next? Who knows? I just thought I'd share this as something to watch if you want to take the current temperature of the financial markets. At the moment, the answer seems to be "not so great, but it could be worse."

(And, in fact, it might be worse. The Wall Street Journal reported the other day on suspicions that banks are lying about their interbank lending rates, making LIBOR seem smaller than it really is. If this is true, then the TED spread is actually larger than it seems. Yuck.)

Kevin Drum 11:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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April 16, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE THREAD....Ah, finally an advantage to living in the Pacific time zone: I've already read all the commentary about tonight's presidential debate on ABC, and it's obviously such a trainwreck that I don't need to bother watching it. Initially I was annoyed at ABC for time delaying it, but now I guess I should thank them. That's two hours of my life that I have back to clip my toenails or something.

Kevin Drum 11:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (125)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEPT. OF WISHFUL THINKING....Iain Murray on Bush's global warming speech:

While the President said that the global warming debate was intensifying, the fact is that global warming alarmism is on the verge of collapse all around the world thanks to the stark lessons of reality.

Huh. I guess I'll keep an eye out for that.

Kevin Drum 6:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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IT'S ALL UP TO DAVE....Fred Kaplan:

The question must be asked: When it comes to national-security affairs — the heart of his campaign, the center of his career — does Sen. John McCain know what he's talking about?

This is in response to McCain's clueless recent comment that he wouldn't move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan "unless Gen. Petraeus said that he felt that the situation called for that." And I suppose ignorance is a possibility here. More likely, though, McCain does know that Petraeus isn't responsible for decisions like this, but didn't want to answer himself because it's a tough question and he doesn't like answering tough questions. And he figured the press would let him get away with it, because they usually do. So he punted, the same way Bush does whenever someone asks about Iraq these days:

Five-and-a-half years ago, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush was occasionally seen carrying a copy of Eliot A. Cohen's book Supreme Command, which argued that, throughout American history, wartime presidents have often overruled their generals, sometimes with fortunate results. Bush's message was clear: The Army's generals were telling then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that they needed more troops for the invasion, but he and Rumsfeld were running the show.

Then, when everything went to hell, the two civilians started piling the burden on the very generals whose advice they'd dismissed. The war plan was "Tommy Franks' plan," Rumsfeld said over and over five years ago. Similarly, Bush now says the surge and everything about it is "Dave Petraeus' plan." How many troops he needs, and how long they stay there — that's strictly up to Dave.

I thought it was up to Dick? No?

Kevin Drum 6:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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YET MORE HEALTHCARE VIDEOS....Yesterday I recommended Frontline's "Sick Around the World." Today's healthcare video recommendation is a humorous 90-second ad for Ron Wyden's Healthy Americans Act. Money line:

A new day is dawning....a day when Americans across the nation can have the power to rise up and exercise their fundamental American right to take a job and shove it — without losing the health benefits they depend on.

OK, OK, it's not quite Monty Python. But not bad for a healthcare ad! If you're interested in more, the main page for Wyden's plan is here. Ezra Klein has additional commentary here.

Kevin Drum 6:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

GET A GRIP....Megan McArdle writes about sexism in the blogosphere:

I do not know whether being a woman has ultimately helped or hurt my career, and I don't waste time worrying about it. But I get a little testy when Kerry Howley and I, among many others, see the comment threads on our media appearances degenerate into extended wardrobe critiques, or debates about whether and under what conditions one might "hit that". I'm irritated when interlocutors both left and right assume that my second X chromosome has conveyed upon me a sacred obligation to agree with their political ideas. I'm annoyed that a typically female narrative style, which touches on personal experience, is derided as fundamentally unserious — particularly when it is so derided by people who admire it in feminist bloggers. And I'm perilously close to despair at finding that so many of my correspondents not only believe that pointing out that I am 35 and unmarried is a devastating insult, but apparently expect me to share that opinion. Was I born in 1973, or am I living in it?

One of the most inexplicable tropes of the liberal blogosphere is its howling disdain for Megan. I guess it all goes back to the moronic "two-by-four" controversy, but it really ought to stop. She writes a perfectly sane, opinionated, moderately libertarian, occasionally obsessive, sometimes provocative blog. I don't often agree with her, and at times I find her maddeningly obtuse, but I'm sure she feels the same about me. In other words, she's a totally normal blogger. Michelle Malkin she ain't.

Anyway, comments are disabled on this post. I don't need the grief. But folks really ought to get a grip.

Kevin Drum 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WIRING BUNDLES....Andrew Tobias, normally a mild-mannered sort of fellow, is pissed off about the cancellation of thousands of American Airlines flights last week, which was caused more by the usual cynical Republican attitude toward allowing government to work properly than by any genuine safety concern:

Here was the FAA that, like other federal agencies (e.g., the Justice Department, FEMA), had been turned to the service of the Republican Party or cronyism or the industry it was meant to regulate.

And here it was now determined to fix its dereliction — as it surely should — yet "fixing" it in an almost intentionally dumb way. (The term "malicious obedience" may apply: obediently doing what one is "supposed" to in a way designed to make people sorry they ever criticized you in the first place.)

No? The issue behind all those cancellations was not metal fatigue that could suddenly have affected a plane, but a quarter-inch difference in the spacing of fasteners that could surely have been corrected over 90 days, not "instantly."

The FAA endangered our safety by firing inspectors who wanted the airlines to follow the rules. And now is goes overboard in the other direction. ("You want regulation? I'll give you regulation!")

That just about sums it up. There was simply no reason to ground all those planes over a minor problem with the wiring bundles. The only question left — as usual — is: Was it incompetence or malevolence? Stupidity or evil? Your call.

UPDATE: Check out the comments for some disagreement about the importance of fixing the wiring bundles immediately.

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ARAB PUBLIC OPINION....Marc Lynch points us to the latest poll of Arab public opinion from Shibley Telhami, and for the most part not too much has changed since 2006. Support for Iran's nuclear program is a bit higher than before (and suprisingly high in absolute terms given that this poll was limited to the Arab public); Hamas is twice as popular as Fatah; the U.S. continues to be viewed extremely unfavorably; al-Qaeda has lost popularity but still retains a fairly sizeable base of sympathy; China is more widely liked than we are; and al-Jazeera remains the most popular news channel by a mile.

But here's an interesting chart. Asked what would happen if the U.S. "quickly" withdraws from Iraq, hardly anyone thinks the Iraqi civil war will expand. The percentage who think "Iraqis will find a way to bridge their differences" grew from 44% two years ago to 61% this year. What's more, the most optimistic countries tended to be the ones closest to Iraq (Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia). Obviously the Arab public could be wrong about this, but this strikes me as a mostly pragmatic question, not the kind of thing driven either by dislike of the U.S. or weird conspiracy mongering. Given that, it's perhaps telling that the opinions of ordinary Arabs who are close to the scene (and who would bear the brunt of a widened civil war if it happened) are so at odds with the nearly unanimous opinion of U.S. foreign policy opinion leaders.

The full report is here.

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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TAX PANDERING....From the Washington Post today:

Sen. John McCain yesterday offered sweeping rhetoric about the economic plight of working-class Americans, promising immediate assistance even as he spelled out a tax and spending agenda whose benefits are aimed squarely at spurring corporate growth.

....Much of what he detailed was a corporate special pleader's dream: a cut in the corporate income tax rate, from 35 percent to 25 percent, a proposal to allow businesses to write off the cost of new equipment and technology from their taxes, a ban on Internet and new cellphone taxes, and a permanent tax credit for research and development.

....And McCain's proposed "middle-class tax cut" — a full repeal of the alternative minimum tax — stretched the definition of middle class. Of the 4 million taxpayers paying the AMT, 93 percent earn between $200,000 and $1 million.

Now that's a shocking development, isn't it? A Republican presidential candidate prating endlessly about helping the regular guy and then offering up a tax plan that even Donald Trump would be embarrassed to ask for directly. The only thing missing was the usual sad song about some mythical Midwest striver who had to sell the family farm to pay his "death taxes."

But at least someone is noticing the two-face act this time around — though that's mostly because McCain is turning out to be unusually clumsy at this kind of stuff. In an odd way, this almost speaks well for him. The pandering he's doing is so plain and so odious that I suspect he's having a hard time making it sound like he really believes this stuff. George Bush never had that difficulty.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Andrew Sullivan, noting that the media firestorm over Barack Obama's "bitter" comment doesn't seem to have hurt him in the polls:

I'm beginning to suspect that the only segment left in America that genuinely feels that elitism is a problem for Obama are ... the elites.

OK, that was actually a quote from yesterday. So here's David K. Shipler, writing in the LA Times today about the racial overtones of being tagged elitist:

"Elitist" is another word for "arrogant," which is another word for "uppity," that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.

I'd really like to see this silliness stopped. Racism is a serious problem that deserves serious treatment, and this kind of desperate word-mongering does nothing but trivialize it. Republicans have tried to brand as "elitist" virtually every Democratic presidential candidate for the past 30 years (at least), and they've done it regardless of race or background. Read Nunberg. This is a conservative thing, not a racial thing.

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DARTH LIEBERMAN....I see today that the Zell Miller-ization of Joe Lieberman is finally just about complete:

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Democratic Party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, is leaving open the possibility of giving a keynote address on behalf of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) at the Republican National Convention in September.

...."If Sen. McCain, who I support so strongly, asked me to do it, if he thinks it will help him, I will," Lieberman said in a brief interview.

Atta boy, Joe. I'm sure the Democratic Party will be eager to return the favor after the November elections.

Kevin Drum 11:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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HEALTHCARE FOLLOWUP....So I watched the PBS show "Sick Around the World" and it turned out to be pretty good. Not a ton of wonky detail, just a nice friendly overview of five different countries and the basics of how their healthcare systems work. The Frontline website is here, and you can watch the show online if you missed it on TV.

I liked the ending. This is approximate, but after wondering whether Americans will ever accept any of the healthcare ideas he had just presented, correspondent T.R. Reid closed with this:

These ideas aren't as foreign as they seem. If you're a U.S. veteran, your healthcare is like Britain. If you're a senior citizen on Medicare, you're Taiwan. If you're a worker who gets insurance from your employer, you're Germany.

Quite so. National healthcare really isn't as foreign or as frightening as conservatives make it out to be. "Sick Around the World" does a good job of demystifying it.

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"KNOWINGLY BULL----ING US THE WHOLE TIME"....Phil Carter reminds me today about a recent ABC News interview with President Bush that I forgot to blog about last week. Martha Raddatz asked Bush why, during the spiraling violence in Iraq in the summer of 2006, he kept insisting publicly that things were going well:

BUSH: Well, yes. I think we — and I wanted — that's as much trying to bolster the spirits of the people in the field as well as — look, you can't have the commander in chief say to a bunch of kids who are sacrificing either, "It's not worth it," or, "You're losing." I mean, what does that do for morale?

Phil is unimpressed:

I was in Iraq during this time in 2006....We knew the ground truth. Being deceived by our senior political leaders certainly didn't change that, nor did it help morale at all. If anything, it hurt morale by undermining confidence in the chain of command. Put bluntly, if you can't trust your generals and political leaders to tell you and your families the truth, how can you trust them at all?

It's disappointing to hear now, two years after the fact, that the president was knowingly bull----ing us the whole time. And that he justified such dishonesty in the name of supporting the troops and protecting their morale. That's an insult to America's men and women in uniform (and their families), who deserve to be told the truth by their political leaders about what's going on. It's also an insult to us, as voters, who deserve the truth so we can make the right decisions in the voting booth.

We deserve to be told the truth by our political leaders? Such a quaint notion.

Kevin Drum 12:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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April 15, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

EXISTENTIAL THREAT UPDATE....Judah Grunstein offers an observation about al-Qaeda and the Sunni Awakening in Iraq:

The Military Review article I wrote up in an earlier post offered more evidence of what's become the consensus explanation for the turning of the Sunni tribes: their disgust with al-Qaida Iraq's murderous tactics and their resentment at the AQI "foreigners" trying to impose an internationalist jihadi ideology on what was essentially a nationalist insurgency. But al-Qaida, as a globalized, multi-national suicide bombing outfit, has no other operational doctrine and no native land to call its own. Which means its experience in Iraq is almost certain to be reproduced everywhere it goes.

Think about that for a second. At a time when eighty percent of the Arab world views America unfavorably, and in a war that a majority of Americans (let alone Iraqis) disapprove of, al-Qaida failed to establish a sustainable bridgehead. That's not the mark of an organization that represents a strategic, existential threat to the United States.

By their nature, Al-Qaida in particular and terrorism in general pose very real threats to the lives and safety of American civilians, threats that need to be addressed firmly, resolutely and effectively. But anyone claiming they are anything more than that has not been paying close enough attention to the evidence of the Iraq War, of which they are usually the most vocal supporters.

Somebody please tell Dick Cheney.

Kevin Drum 11:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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"SICK AROUND THE WORLD"....If you've been looking for the more serious, more substantive, more balanced version of Michael Moore's Sicko — and who hasn't? — you're in luck. It's called "Sick Around the World" and it airs tonight on PBS at 9 pm. Jon Cohn reviews it here:

"Sick Around the World" isn't afraid to talk about the problems in other countries. In England, the film notes, patients frequently wait for elective services; in Germany, physicians are unhappy that they don't get paid more; in Japan, the government's hyper-aggressive price controls have led to chronic underfunding. And yet the new film also puts these drawbacks in their rightful context. Every system the film portrays has its problems, but overall each one seems to deliver a better total package than the one in the U.S.

The most interesting case study is probably Taiwan. A few years ago, when Taiwan decided to revamp its health care system, it studied other countries to determine which system might work best. Its conclusion? A single-payer system — one in which the government insures everybody directly — made the most sense.

Virtually alone among health care commentators in the U.S. — a category that includes me — Paul Krugman has been touting Taiwan for a while. The film makes it easy to see why. Today, the people of Taiwan have guaranteed access to health care — and, according to the film, it's very good health care. There are no chronic waiting lists, like you find in Britain, and the care is very advanced. Among other things, Taiwan is among the world leaders in establishing electronic medical records — an innovation that should significantly improve care by keeping doctors and nurses better informed about patient histories and, no less important, avoiding potentially dangerous drug interactions.

Critics of national healthcare are always able to come up with reasons why the success of systems in other countries doesn't mean they'd work here. The Japanese are healthier than us. Belgium is smaller than us. Sweden is more homogeneous than us. Germans are more willing to pay higher taxes than us. Etc. Etc. It's always something.

But the opposite is true too. National healthcare, it turns out, is pretty effective in big countries (Germany, Japan), diverse countries (France, Britain), tax-phobic countries (Switzerland), and countries with health profiles similar to ours (Canada, Britain). And as Jon says, even warts and all, each one seems to deliver a better total package than the jury-rigged, pseudo-private mish-mash that we have here. So tell your skeptic friends to tune in tonight and watch the show. Maybe they'll start to understand that we can, indeed, do better if we put our minds to it.

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VLWC UPDATE....Jeez, even Wikipedia is a bastion of liberal bias? I wish National Review would put this stuff online (for free, that is) so that it was easier to mock. For the rest of us without subs, Eve Fairbanks has the rundown.

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LET'S HAVE A HOLIDAY!....John McCain is calling for a "gas-tax holiday"? Seriously? Does the guy have some kind of computerized pander-matic machine that he cranks up every once in a while when he's in need of some new policy to toss out? Sheesh.

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THE CULTURE WARS....Are working class voters really "bitter"? Does this explain why many of them tend to vote Republican based on culture-war issues even though their economic self-interest ought to push them into the Democratic column? Ross Douthat suggests that it's really the other way around: it's self-interest that pushes them into the conservative camp:

In this reading of the culture wars, middle-income voters privilege culture over economics because they perceive the breakdown of "traditional values" — manifested in everything from divorce, marriage and out-of-wedlock birth rates to what's shown on television and taught in schools — as a greater danger to their well-being than, say, the specter of outsourcing or the spike in CEO salaries.

In a robust economy, most Americans — yes, even most blue-collar Americans — feel like they can control their own economic destiny; even now, on the cusp of a recession, huge majorities of American will say their own financial outlook is relatively rosy. Which means that their worries, not implausibly, turn to sociological and cultural questions. Are my streets safe at night, and will my neighborhood still be a good place to raise a family in ten years? What are my kids watching on TV, or being taught in school? Will my daughter's marriage break up, and will my son do the right thing by his girlfriend if he gets her pregnant? And, more broadly — does my government reflect and promote my values, whether in marriage law or welfare policy or what-have-you?

This is an argument that Ross and Reihan Salam make in their upcoming book, Grand New Party, and it consists of two separate points that get a bit conflated here. The first is that the working class today isn't all that badly off. This isn't an argument against promoting policies to help them (Grand New Party, in fact, is basically an extended argument in favor of giving more attention to economic policies that help the working class), merely an observation that in a country where the median family income is $56,000, a lot of people are comfortable enough that they aren't highly motivated to vote on purely pocketbook issues. In other words, they aren't voting on cultural issues because they're poor, they're voting on cultural issues because they're well enough off that they can afford to.

The second point is a more interesting one: namely that working class communities are more concerned about the breakdown of traditional mores because it's working class communities that are most seriously affected by the breakdown of traditional mores. As Garance Franke-Ruta put it a couple of years ago in the American Prospect:

Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a great deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.

Middle class whites don't care much about rising divorce rates, for example, because (a) divorce rates aren't that high among middle class whites and (b) divorce isn't all that catastrophic when it does happen. Working class communities, however, have higher divorce rates and are therefore naturally more sensitive to its effects. That's especially true since the economic effects of divorce are far more dire for low-income families than they are for higher-income families.

This obviously isn't the whole story, and there's not much question that the Republican Party has cynically fanned the cultural flames for decades partly as a way of distracting voters from noticing that their economic policies are aimed almost entirely at promoting the fortunes of the rich and the mega-rich. Still, it's a worthwhile observation that one of the reasons working class voters care more about the post-60s breakdown of the family is because they're much more intimately affected by it in the first place. In a way, this is an argument that economic factors do drive cultural anxieties, but in a subtly different way than we usually think of it.

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LOYALTIES IN PLAY....Compare and contrast. In the LA Times, Jerome Karabel reminds us that lifelong political loyalties tend to be cemented during your 20s, which means that Democrats are playing with fire if they don't nominate Barack Obama:

The future political loyalties of today's 18- to 29-year-olds — a huge group of 42 million — are still very much up for grabs. Nonetheless, their preferences in the primaries so far are clear....In fact, were 18- to 29-year-olds alone to decide the Democratic nominee, Obama would win nationwide by a landslide of at least 20 points.

....It is now clear that neither Obama nor Clinton will be able to win enough pledged delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination. In all likelihood, it will fall to the superdelegates to resolve the increasingly bitter contest between them. As they search for the wisest course of action, they would do well to remember that today's young people — those born between 1979 and 1990 — will still be a major electoral force in the 2050s and beyond. If the party alienates them, it will be a mistake whose reverberations will be felt for decades to come.

Next up is Amanda Fortini, who writes in New York magazine that Hillary Clinton's campaign has — perhaps — put women's loyalties into play too:

Not so long ago, it was possible for women, particularly young women, to share in the popular illusion that we were living in a postfeminist moment....Then Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy, and the sexism in America, long lying dormant, like some feral, tranquilized animal, yawned and revealed itself. Even those of us who didn't usually concern ourselves with gender-centric matters began to realize that when it comes to women, we are not post-anything.

....The women I interviewed who described a kind of conversion experience brought about by Clinton's candidacy were professionals in their thirties, forties, and fifties, and a few in their twenties....A not insignificant number of women mentioned arguments they'd had with male friends and colleagues, who disagreed that Clinton was being treated with any bias. A high-powered film executive for a company based in New York and Los Angeles recounted a heated debate she engaged in with two of her closest male friends; she finally capitulated when they teamed up and began to shout her down. Nearly all of the women I interviewed, with the exception of those who write on gender issues professionally, refused to be named for fear of offending the male bosses and colleagues and friends they'd tangled with.

....The past few months have been like an extended consciousness-raising session, to use a retro phrase that would have once made most of us cringe. We've parsed the gender politics of the campaign with other women in the office, at parties, over e-mail, and now we're starting to parse the gender politics of our lives. This is, admittedly, depressing: How can we be confronting the same issues, all these years later? But it's also exciting. It feels as if a window has been opened in a stuffy, long-sealed room. There is a thrill at the collective realization. Now the question is, what next?

It's a common meme that Obama's idealistic supporters are disgusted with Hillary Clinton (and Clintonism in general) and could well just stay home in November if their guy doesn't win the primary. It's much less remarked that an awful lot of liberal women are appalled at how Hillary has been treated during this campaign and that some of them might stay home as well if she doesn't win.

In the end, my guess is that neither group will stay home. The specter of John McCain in the White House will simply be too strong. But read Fortini's piece, especially if you've been inclined to dismiss the idea that there's a sense of genuine feminist outrage bubbling under the surface of the campaign. Fortini taps into something real here, and Obama and his supporters ignore it at their peril.

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DEFINING McCAIN....This anti-McCain ad from David Brock's shop is pretty decent. A little bland, but that might not be a bad way to start. However, I agree with Matt Yglesias:

I would, however, somewhat prefer to see early attacks focus on McCain's disastrous thinking on national security issues — the economy argument is very easy to make, so it's more important to get started on the more difficult task of making the case that for all the honor of McCain's military service, it's left him with a reckless and absurd strategic vision.

There's no question that the economy is going to be a far more salient topic this year than it was in 2004, but it's unlikely to be salient enough all by itself. And as Matt says, changing public perception of McCain's national security credentials will be a slow task, so the earlier it gets started the better. Luckily, the basic structure of the current ad lends itself to any number of topics — not by coincidence, I'm sure — and my guess is that we'll see an Iraq war version in the very near future.

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A NEW ISRAEL LOBBY....A new pro-Israel lobby, JStreet, has been started up as a moderate counterweight to the increasingly hawkish AIPAC. Laura Rozen reports:

"What has happened in the political world is that the people both elected [to Congress] and candidates and the folks around them have come to believe that the only way to speak to the Jewish community is to take the most right-wing position,' [Jeremy] Ben Ami said. "There is no political benefit to be at the center."

....For now, Ben Ami tells me he is working out of his basement, the organization has no headquarters and doesn't plan for one, and plans to operate heavily in the online world. "We're following the MoveOn model, of being virtual, and heavily online," Ben Ami says. "Part of our goal and plan in the coming year is to develop an online presence in the way that Obama and Dean and MoveOn have done ... and to tap into that and have a large base of small donors."

Well, the journey of a thousand miles etc. etc. Good luck to 'em. God knows AIPAC could use the competition.

Kevin Drum 11:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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April 14, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL WATCH....Over the past few years Russia has been a relative bright spot on the oil scene, expanding its production by over a million barrels per day between 2002 and 2007. But it looks like Russia is now due to join Norway, Mexico, and the UK as countries that have hit their peak and are about to go into decline:

Russian supply in the first three months of this year fell for the first time this decade, averaging 10 million barrels a day, a 1% drop from the year-earlier period...."There isn't a lot of supply coming on right now, so this [lack of non-OPEC growth] is framing the whole narrative of the market," said Roger Diwan, a financial energy adviser at PFC Energy in Washington.

Russia's production slump also highlights a troubling reality: Despite soaring oil prices in the past five years, crude output among non-OPEC countries has remained essentially flat since 2005, defying the normal link between high prices and increased production.

....Fading Russian production would put an even greater weight on projects elsewhere in the world, despite troubling signs even in the oil-rich Middle East. Most forecasts predict that liquid fuel demand world-wide will hit 100 million barrels a day by 2015, up from around 86 million barrels a day now.

But to get there, producers will first have to keep abreast of steep declines in existing fields. That decline rate now subtracts an estimated 4.5 million barrels a day from annual output. Many big producers like Saudi Arabia, however, are now looking to preserve some fields for longer-term gain, instead of pumping to meet rising world demand. Saudi news reports quoted King Abdullah over the weekend saying that new oil finds in the kingdom should be left in the ground. "With grace from God, our children need it," he said.

That's a change of tune from the Saudis. Until now, they've been telling analysts that they have loads of capacity and can put it on the market whenever they want. But I guess that's no longer operative. The new story is that they have plenty of great opportunities — honest! — but they're saving them for their grandkids.

Well — maybe. And it's true that both the Saudis and the Russians have megaprojects due to come online over the next year or two, so it's not as if they're just twiddling their thumbs. Overall, though, oil at $100 a barrel sure doesn't seem to be spurring the kind of additional production you'd think it would. It's almost as if there's no net additional production to be had.

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIORITIES....Here's the latest on our kinder, gentler Internal Revenue Service:

The IRS's scrutiny of the biggest U.S. companies is running at a 20-year low, according to the study, conducted by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a research group affiliated with Syracuse University.

The study, made public Sunday, points to "a historic collapse in audits." It found that major corporations — defined as those with assets of at least $250 million — have about a one in four chance of being audited, down from about three in four in 1990.

Seems reasonable to me. After all, corporations are so much more honest these days than they used to be. Why waste taxpayer dollars snooping around their books, when those dollars can instead be spent making sure that poor people don't abuse the Earned Income Tax Credit?

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By: Kevin Drum

BITTER...."Bittergate," huh? That's a nano-fuss I'm glad to have missed out on by being offline over the weekend. For the record, though, here's what Barack Obama told an audience in San Francisco last week:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them....And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Like most nano-controversies, the fuss over this sentence is kind of dumb. But hey — we're in the middle of a campaign, and dumb is the name of the game.

Once you clear out all the meta-clutter, though, what really strikes me as odd about Obama's statement is that, on its merits, it's largely untrue, isn't it? Economic distress probably is responsible for growing anti-trade sentiment (though the Midwest has never exactly been a bastion of free trade support), and maybe for a bit of the increase in anti-immigrant sentiment too (though I think this has been more cultural than economic, and is primarily rooted in the simple fact that we have a lot more illegal immigrants today than we did 15 years ago). But does anyone really think that stagnant wages and globalization are responsible for rural gun culture? Or the rise of the Christian right? Or an increase in bigotry? This stuff just doesn't seem to be related to recent economic distress in any serious way at all. Gun culture, for example, has been around forever. It's just that it was largely unnoticed until liberals started trying to take guns away in the 60s and 70s. The rise of the Christian right has lots of causes, but it's part of a long American religious tradition that has very little to do with the ups and downs of the economy. And bigotry hasn't increased in the past 25 years, so that part doesn't even make sense on its own terms.

Whether Obama was being condescending or elitist or pandering or whatever, I don't know. But he sure wasn't being very careful. Trying to reduce America's cultural schisms to mere symptoms of economic frustration just won't work.

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (194)

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By: Kevin Drum

FIREFOX vs. SAFARI....This is totally off topic from everything, but.....

A few people have emailed recently to tell me they're having problems loading the blog in Safari on a Mac. I can't really check out this problem rigorously since I don't have a Mac, but last night I downloaded the Windows version of Safari to see if perhaps it was a generic Safari bug. Long story short, everything loads fine on my machine, so I still don't know what the problem is. But now I have another question.

The first thing I noticed when I loaded a few pages into Safari is that it uses some kind of (proprietary?) font-smoothing algorithm that makes most pages practically unreadable. I tried changing the settings, but all four of the available options sucked. At least, I thought they sucked. An example from the blog is below. So here's the question: Does this really suck? Or do most people actually prefer the smudgy Safari font to the sharper Firefox font (which appears to use the Windows rendering engine)? Is there any way to change this? Or what? I'm tossing this critically important question into the maw of the comments section because, after all, who better to debate the relative merits of Mac vs. PC than blog commenters?

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By: Kevin Drum

TIER 4....According to the New York Times, the "fastest-growing segment in private insurance" is a new pricing category for expensive drugs called Tier 4. "With the new pricing system, insurers abandoned the traditional arrangement that has patients pay a fixed amount, like $10, $20 or $30 for a prescription, no matter what the drug's actual cost. Instead, they are charging patients a percentage of the cost of certain high-priced drugs, usually 20 to 33 percent, which can amount to thousands of dollars a month."

Jon Cohn writes that using government bargaining power to drive down drug prices might help here, but the real problem is that the incentives for private insurers to reduce coverage for their most expensive — i.e., sickest — clients is simply too strong:

In the long run, the real solution here is to create an insurance system that doesn't provide financial incentives for shifting costs onto the sick. And the only way to do that is to create a system for everybody, with relatively generous benefits, so that the burden for high medical expenses is spread across the entire population.

....But this brings us back to the political challenge of universal coverage. No matter what kind of proposal reformers end up supporting, a lot of people will eye it suspiciously — and assume it's worse than what they have already.

Today's Times story is a reminder of how misguided that thinking is. Even Americans with "good" insurance may not have the kind of protection they need in case of severe illness. They may feel secure, but they are just one illness or injury away from serious financial hardship.

Are they willing to take that chance?

Not for much longer, I imagine. As the number of companies offering coverage declines; as premiums increase; as formularies become less generous; and as clever new cost control techniques like "Tier 4" become more common, fewer and fewer Americans are going to stay attached to their current private coverage. Canada is looking better ever day, eh?

Kevin Drum 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Kevin Drum

CAN WE DO COIN?....Are 15-month combat tours too long? Definitely. How about 12-month tours? Phil Carter thinks even those are too long, and prefers the 7-month tours mandated by the Marine Corps. This prompted me to ask on Friday, "Are 7-month tours consistent with the learning-curve requirements of counterinsurgency?" Over the weekend, Phil answered:

This is a great question. The short answer is no, not by a long shot.

Counterinsurgency requires detailed knowledge of the human, geographic, political and social terrain, and it takes time to acquire that knowledge. I'd say it became effective around the fifth or sixth month of my tour as a police adviser in Iraq. Arguably, advisers, commanders and troops operating outside the wire should serve longer tours in order to develop and cement their relationships, and capitalize on them.

Phil suggests that deploying units back to the same areas instead of rotating them through different areas on every tour might help, but his overall conclusion is, "It's a real dilemma." Short tours don't give you enough time to learn the ground and the people, but long tours eat up the troops. There's no good middle ground.

Kevin Drum 12:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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April 13, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WEEKEND MALIBU BLOGGING....Did you miss me? Or did the miracle of pre-scheduled posting fool you into thinking that I was here all weekend?

In fact, I've been gone since shortly after posting Friday's catblogging. A friend of mine is a writer for the Bill Maher show, so Marian and I went up to LA to see the taping on Friday evening. Then we headed out to Malibu for a very nice, relaxing, warm weekend at the beach. No internet, no newspapers, no connection with the outside world at all — and when I got home I marked all my RSS feeds as read and consigned them to the dustbin of history. I assume Bush is still president, right?

Speaking of presidents, on Saturday we went out to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley and learned that the old Air Force One was really pretty tiny. After we were done with the tour I was hoping to get a Reagan bobblehead doll at the gift shop as a plaything for the cats, but no such luck. They run a tight ship in Reagan-land, and the gift shop carried nothing that might be considered less than fully adulatory.

Wind surfers Kiteboarders were out on Saturday afternoon, and the requisite pretty sunset pictures are here. Full service blogging will resume shortly.

UPDATE: Ah, kiteboarders, not wind surfers. Thanks, Poliwog.

Kevin Drum 6:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

TAKING AL FRANKEN SERIOUSLY....Josh Green writes in the Atlantic about Al Franken's run for the Senate in Minnesota:

Though his talk of change and building a movement echoes Obama's, Franken's appeal is altogether different. He doesn't seek to unite Republicans and Democrats, as Obama does, but rather to draw sharp contrasts, as Dean did, in a style of chesty confrontation. I watched the speech with a young Navy officer and Iraq veteran named Tim Wellman Jr., who was wearing the military equivalent of a letterman's jacket, embroidered with his dates of service and where he'd deployed, with a couple of Franken stickers slapped on. Though it doesn't get nearly the attention his political activism does, Franken was participating in USO tours long before it was fashionable among Democrats, and has kept it up with trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, despite his opposition to the war (though he did not initially oppose it). I asked Wellman what drew him to Franken. "He brings a clear vision of right and wrong," he said. "He's been very strong about confronting Republicans on their own issues, like strength and war." Other Democrats in the audience said much the same thing.

Personally, I'd vote for anyone who wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, so I don't need a lot of convincing. But if you're curious about how the campaign is going, click the link.

Kevin Drum 3:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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April 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CORPORATE WELFARE UPDATE....The housing bill easily passed the Senate on Thursday:

The most expensive item is a tax break for homebuilders and other money-losing businesses that would cost the federal government more than $25 billion over the next three years. Missing entirely: A new mechanism to aid borrowers who can't afford their mortgage payments and, due to falling home prices, owe their banks more than their homes are worth, the group most at risk of foreclosure.

One of the bill's chief sponsors, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), called the measure "a major, positive step in the right direction," but he acknowledged that the package offers little in direct aid to the nearly 8,000 families thrown into foreclosure each day.

I'm totally conflicted on foreclosure aid. Is it a good idea because lots of people are hurting and need help — and if Wall Street is going to get help, why not the little guys too? Or is it a bad idea because it just helps to prop up housing prices, extending a bubble that needs to be allowed to pop?

I'm not sure. But that $25 billion tax break? No conflict there. It's right up there with ethanol subsidies in the pantheon of outlandishly rapacious corporate welfare legislation. Daniel Gross explains:

The technical term for this is a tax-loss carryback. But it should perhaps be known as a bubble-head tax break....Homebuilders argue that they need relief because their sector, which provides a great deal of domestic employment, is on the ropes, and they're finding it more difficult to raise capital. Which is as it should be. After bubbles pop, those who screwed up really badly fail and get taken over by creditors or opportunistic investors. Those who have sound underlying franchises but merely got a little carried away can survive if they take painful restructuring moves. This is what is known as market capitalism.

....The proposal to give new tax breaks to homebuilders and banks is yet another example of the pernicious trend of privatizing profit and socializing losses, which is gnawing away at faith in the system. Dilute the shareholders, not the taxpayers.

The lesson here is this: Republicans will never give up. No matter what the problem at hand is, the solution is a corporate tax break of some kind. They will never allow a bill to pass Congress unless there's a tax cut included, no matter how stupid or misguided. Period.

Democrats need to stop giving in to this blackmail. Let 'em filibuster for the grand cause of the extended tax-loss carryback if they want. The rest of this bill isn't worth caving in on this, and we have to start fighting back against this kind of lunacy eventually. Why not now?

Kevin Drum 2:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Paul Glastris

FIX THE OLYMPICS... The current protests surrounding the Olympic torch are probably just a prelude to much bigger controversies that will ensue as the actual games approach. And to the extent that all these protests put pressure on China to improve its human rights record, that's a good thing. But using the Olympics as a venue for global politics is obviously not the best thing for the health of the games themselves. Indeed, as Tony Perrottet points out in an op-ed in the New York Times today, the ancient Greeks managed to hold the Olympics every four years for ten centuries, despite near constant warring among the city-states (and with political fights occasionally erupting at the games). The modern Olympics, by contrast, have been canceled three times because of war (1916, 1940, and 1944). And in other times (1980) the games have been diminished by becoming great power proxy fights.

So how is it that the ancient Greeks managed to better insulate their Olympics from geo-politics? The answer is that they didn't move the venue every four years the way we do. Instead, with one exception, they always held the contests at the religious sanctuary of Olympia, in a politically irrelevant corner of the Peloponnese. Perrottet suggests that we follow the Greek's example and find a permanent home for the games in some safe little neutral country like Liechtenstein.

The Washington Monthly's Christina Larson came to the same conclusion four years ago, though in her story, "Movable Feat," she argued for planting the Olympics permanently in its ancient homeland, Greece. As her editor, and a Greek, I obviously agree. And any doubts that Greece has the organizational ability to handle the event were put to rest by the stunning success of the 2004 games in Athens.

I hope the Beijing games go well. But if they don't, maybe we ought to consider the possibility that the ancient Greeks knew what they were doing.

Paul Glastris 7:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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April 11, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Today's theme is peering cats. On the left, Inkblot is in the ever-popular peering-over-the-monitor pose that technophile cat lovers know so well. On the right, Domino is in the even more popular cat-peering-out-of-a-bag pose that pretty much everyone knows so well.

With that, I'm off to peer at lunch. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Kevin Drum 2:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

A COIN QUESTION....The Army recently announced that combat tours in Iraq will be reduced from 15 months to 12, but Phil Carter writes that this still isn't enough:

Many soldiers I know are literally green with envy over the Marines' shorter seven-month tours, which are modeled on the Marines' practice of floating combat units abroad for six-month-long cruises. The Army used a similar model during the peacekeeping deployments of the 1990s.

....A 12-month combat tour is a different story....The combat-stress literature suggests there is a finite limit to the quantity of combat an individual can experience before he/she breaks down and becomes "combat ineffective." For sustained major combat operations, like Guadalcanal or the Hurtgen Forest, that figure is 60 days or so. We don't know exactly what the figure is for sustained counterinsurgency operations of the sort practiced in Baghdad or Baqubah. But there is a limit.

OK, but here's a question for Phil: are 7-month tours consistent with the learning-curve requirements of counterinsurgency? I've heard frequently that one of our problems in Iraq, even with 12-month tours, has been the constant churn of new troops and new commanders into an area, which requires several months after each rotation to build back the trust and relationships put in place by the previous unit. So are we in a Catch-22, where short deployments cause too much churn for COIN operations to be successful, while longer deployments cause too much troop stress for COIN operations to be successful?

This, by the way, comes from Phil's new home at the Washington Post. If you haven't changed your bookmark yet, Intel Dump is now at:

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/inteldump/

It's worth being on your daily reading list.

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE MUD....Over at NRO, Mark Krikorian offers tomorrow's anti-immigrant wingnuttery today:

[A recent] survey found that 82 percent of American Christians felt they had a "moral and biblical" obligation to support Israel, including 89 percent of evangelicals, but also 76 percent of Catholics. It's this last statistic that's striking evidence of Americanization — I haven't seen comparable polls elsewhere, but it seems exceedingly unlikely that even a majority of Catholics anywhere else would agree.

....The policy point is this — does anyone think three-quarters of the grandchildren of today's Hispanic Catholic immigrants will be similarly pro-Israel? It's not that Latin immigrants are uniquely anti-Semitic (I suspect they're more anti-Semitic than today's Asians or yesterday's Irish and Italians, but less so than Eastern European immigrants); rather, our ability to Protestantize them (in the sense I'm using it) has declined dramatically compared to a century ago.

Seriously? We need to keep out the Mexicans because their grandkids might not be Likudnik enough? Hoo boy. Unfortunately, the very fact that this is so wildly unhinged practically guarantees its wide distribution among the nativist hordes in short order.

John Miller valiantly fights back with some actual facts here. Good luck.

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI BONDS....Last year I blogged about a paper from Michael Greenstone of MIT that looked at Iraqi bond yields and concluded that investors were basically rushing for the doors. After the start of the surge, bond yields shot upward, suggesting that the financial community was largely convinced that the Iraqi government was unstable and likely to default on its commitments. Full details here.

So it's only fair to note a different metric — the cost of insuring Iraqi bonds — that suggests investor confidence is getting stronger:

The cost of insuring country-region Iraq's bonds against default has fallen so sharply that they now costs less to insure than Venezuelan debt, said Citi economist David Lubin. "Judging from the performance of spreads in the market for sovereign credit risk, one could argue that Iraq has become something of a safe haven in recent months," he said.

Oil-exporter Iraq has benefited from an improvement in its foreign-exchange reserves. Iraqi five-year credit default swaps — instruments which protect against debt default — tightened to 520 basis points from around 635 bps at the start of the year.

Now, I gather that 520 bp is still pretty stratospheric. And personally, I'm more the Vanguard index fund type than the Iraqi bond punter type. But you keep saying you want some good news about Iraq, so here it is. Just remember not to invest any money you can't afford to lose.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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By: Kevin Drum

DUMPSTER DIVING....For some reason, I thought that the fad for rooting through company trash looking for dirt had gone out of fashion. Doesn't everyone shred their trash these days? Or incinerate it? Or something?

Apparently not. Over at Mother Jones, James Ridgeway tells the story of Beckett Brown International, a security firm that, until it distintegrated due to infighting, specialized in spying on environmental organizations for its business clients:

Greenpeace was the target of one of BBI's more elaborate — and cinematic — intelligence-gathering efforts, according to company documents and an interview with an eyewitness. Jennifer Trapnell, who was dating [Tim] Ward in the late 1990s, recalls an evening when she accompanied Ward on a job in Washington D.C. "He said they were trying to get some stuff on Greenpeace," she says. Ward wore black clothes and had told her to dress all in black, too: "It was Mission Impossible-like." In Washington, Ward parked his truck in an alley, she remembers, and told her to stay in the truck and keep a lookout. In the alley, he met a couple of other men, whose faces Trapnell did not see clearly. Ward was talking on a walkie-talkie with others, and they all walked off. About an hour later, the men came back and placed two trash bags in Ward's car. Trapnell says she didn't know what they did with the bags — and Ward never explained.

There's also a Taco Bell email that's worth a read. Click here for the whole story.

Kevin Drum 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

A DISPATCH FROM BIZARRO WORLD....File this under "stuff so weird I don't even know how to react." It's from Lester Thurow writing in the LA Times today:

There is a solution to the rising cost of oil, but it is a painful one. Let's say there is a lot of $20-a-barrel oil in the world — deep-sea oil, Canadian tar sands. But who would look for $20-a-barrel oil if someone else (Saudi Arabia) has lots of $5-a-barrel oil? The answer is: no one.

Basically, American taxpayers have to guarantee potential producers that the price in the future will not fall below $20 a barrel and that they will not lose their investments.

This is easy to do. The U.S. needs to guarantee that it will buy all of its oil at $20 a barrel before buying anything from OPEC. This forces the price of oil down to $20 a barrel, but it eliminates the possibility that it will ever go back to $5 a barrel.

....We need to do something! Take painful actions! Gridlock is the worst of all worlds.

Assume a can opener, apply a plainly loopy economic argument, and our problem is solved! Hooray! Thurow must be auditioning for a role in John McCain's campaign.

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

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By: Kevin Drum

FOOD PRICES....This has been all over the news lately, but here's a particularly striking chart showing the stunning increase in food prices over the past year. It looks an awful lot like NASDAQ charts from 1999 and housing charts from 2006. World Bank president Bob Zoellick explains:

Zoellick says prices for basic staples will remain high for an extended period of time. "I think you have a perfect storm of things coming together," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview. "You have high energy prices. You have the increase in demand from some of the developing countries....As the Indian commerce minister said to me, going from one meal a day to two meals a day for 300 million people increases demand a lot. You have some of those countries moving to a different diet. So more meats require more grains. You have the biofuels expansion, which is a big source of demand."

Of course, the other thing this chart looks like is oil prices circa right now. Peak oil is driving up oil prices, and that in turn is driving the ethanol boom, which is reducing the supply of foodstocks available for people to actually eat. I think we can expect this to continue getting worse.

Via James Joyner.

Kevin Drum 10:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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April 10, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CHINA BASHING....Matt Yglesias, noting that John McCain is now calling for the president to boycott the Olympic Games opening ceremonies in Beijing, has this comment:

It's interesting that all the presidential candidates seem to believe this is good politics. Threatening to boycott the ceremonies per se seems unlikely to accomplish anything, but if the Chinese leadership sees that Western politicians come under intense pressure to have nothing to do with the PRC when the PRC cracks down, that should be food for thought in Beijing.

I guess I'd look at this through a different lens. There are a few evergreen topics in presidential campaigns, and one of them is a call from the various contenders to "get tough" with China. I think pretty much every presidential candidate for the past three decades has insisted that the current incumbent is obviously afraid to stand tall in the Pacific, and when he takes office we'll see the end of all that feeble kowtowing to the old men in Beijing.

And why not? It's a freebie. Candidates know perfectly well that "getting tough" is a big applause line on the stump, and they know equally well that the actual president, who's responsible for actual relations with China, can't really afford random acts of bluster toward the Chinese that might have real-world consequences (see, for example, Bush, George W., before and after the EP-3 shootdown in 2001). So their bluff is never going to get called, and by the time they take office everyone will have forgotten the whole thing.

In other words, this is just more of the same — and frankly, if this season's China bashing is limited to calls for Olympic boycotts we'll have gotten off pretty easy. What's more, if we are going to bash China, Darfur is a better topic than usual to bash them about. Unlike Tibet, which China will flatly never give in on, their behavior in Darfur is quite possibly malleable. They've been standing in the way of arresting indicted war crimes suspects in the Sudanese government, for example, and Andrew Slack emails to remind me that the next vote on this in the UN Security Council is in June. "Watch China try to do that while we have the 'Genocide Olympics' spotlight on them. If they don't stand in the way of our efforts to make arrests and the Sudanese government does not hand over the two men indicted (in fact, one of these men is being promoted right now in the government) then we will freeze the assets of folks like al-Bashir and this will be one of the most effective steps in pushing for a stop to the arming, killing, and attacks that have persisted for five years." Maybe so.

Kevin Drum 5:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

"IRRETRIEVABLY WORSE"....If things are improving so nicely in Iraq, why not continue with a prudent, judicious withdrawal of U.S. forces? Joe Klein takes a stab at answering:

Because, it seems, the Bush Administration has other fish to fry. The first is Muqtada al-Sadr, whose movement features a defiant nationalism that is traditionally both anti-American and anti-Persian (although Sadrist elements have been willing to accept help from the Iranians in recent years). Under questioning from Hillary Clinton about the Maliki government's recent abortive offensive against Sadr's forces in Basra, Petraeus admitted that U.S. troops would have provided resources and "different actions" for a more carefully planned attack. An intelligence source told me that the operation had been planned for June.

That would have been extremely foolish. The U.S. would have been inserting itself into a part of Iraq that we don't know very well — the south — and taking sides against what is probably the most popular mass movement in Shi'ite Iraq. But the Petraeus battle plan apparently includes an anti-Sadrist move, which may mean a spurt of violence as widespread and vicious as the worst of the Sunni insurgency. Is that why the general wants a "pause" in the U.S. withdrawal this summer?

What could possibly be the rationale for this? Perhaps it is that Sadr's Mahdi Army is the most potent force opposed to long-term U.S. bases in Iraq — and that a permanent presence has been the Bush Administration's true goal in this war. I suspect the central question in Iraq now is not whether things will get better but whether the drive for a long-term, neocolonialist presence will make the situation irretrievably worse.

I'd say we're pretty close to "irretrievably worse" already, but perhaps not completely there yet. Another year or two, though, and we will be.

Kevin Drum 2:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

ARE YOU BETTER OFF TODAY THAN YOU WERE FOUR FIVE YEARS AGO?....This intriguing little chart from Pew has been making the rounds of the blogosphere, and it's worth a look. It really is kind of fascinating.

Basically, it's several decades worth of Gallup/Pew responses to the question, "Are you better off now than you were five years ago?" Two initial observations on this. First, as a baseline, you'd expect lots of yes answers to this question because a big part of the population consists of young people who are graduating from high school/college, getting jobs, getting married, having kids, getting promotions, etc. Most people in their 20s and 30s have rising economic fortunes regardless of their long-term prospects. And that's exactly what we see up until about 2000.

Second — oddly — recessions seem to have little effect on how people respond to this question. There aren't enough data points to say this with certainty, but I've overlaid recessionary periods in red and they really don't seem to map at all to downturns in average optimism. Until 2000, that is. The 2001 recession maps to an initial drop in optimism in 2002, followed by another drop in 2005, followed by a complete collapse in 2008. As a result the percentage of people who think they're better off now than five years ago has dropped from about 56% in the 2000 data point to 41% in the 2008 data point. This is by far its lowest point ever.

My guess is that part of this is a result of the end of the baby boom and the graying of the American population. But only a small part. Almost certainly the bulk of this downturn is due to the fact that the Republican economy of the past seven years has been aimed like a laser at improving the fortunes of the affluent, with the result that for the first time in recent memory an economic expansion — a long economic expansion — hasn't improved the fortunes of the middle class even slightly. After seven years of this, the working and middle classes are finally starting to realize that this isn't likely to change.

Can Democrats profit from this? You'd think so, but first they have to convince voters that (a) economic policy actually matters, (b) Republican economic policy really does screw them, and (c) Democrats have something to offer that will concretely make a difference. Time to step up to the plate, Barack.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ TIDBITS....The British military came under considerable criticism during the Battle of Basra for staying on their base outside the airport and refusing to come into the city to help out government forces. Turns out, though, that the British did offer to help after all, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent them packing. Apparently he's still mad because the Brits made a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr to avoid attack during last year's withdrawal from Basra city. More fine work from our man in Baghdad.

On another front — and yes, I realize almost no one else will be interested in this — I've been emailing with Eric Martin recently wondering why we hear nothing these days about the Fadhila Party in Basra. Fadhila is the "third" party in the south (along with the Sadrists and the Dawa/ISCI/Hakim partisans), and despite their substantial power in and around Basra they've been virtually invisible during the recent fighting. Today, Juan Cole passes along the most detailed report I've read recently about Fadhila's whereabouts:

The Times also suggests that the governor of Basra Province, Muhammad Misbah al-Wa'ili, is effectively under house arrest, his own guards from his Islamic Virtue Party (Fadhila) having been replaced by Iraqi army troops. Al-Wa'ili lost a vote of no confidence in late April of 2007 in a maneuver organized by al-Maliki's ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. But al-Wa'ili brandished his Islamic Virtue militia and refused to step down. If the Times's report is true, it may well be that al-Maliki came south to install the Islamic Supreme Council and its Badr Corps paramilitary, along with the Iraqi 14th Division, in power in Basra. That would give ISCI, led by pro-Iranian cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the advantages of incumbency going into October's provincial elections.

That makes sense. If Maliki was trying to use the military to gain the electoral upper hand in Basra in the runup to elections, he'd need to weaken both Sadr and al-Wa'ili. He may not be much of a prime minister (or much of a commander-in-chief) but Maliki knows who his enemies are.

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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By: Kevin Drum

UPDATING THE GI BILL....Wes Clark and Jon Soltz write about John McCain's curious indifference to congressional efforts to update the GI Bill:

The GI Bill not only recognized our nation's moral duty for the enormous sacrifices of our World War II veterans, but it helped create America's middle class and spurred decades of economic growth for our country. Economists estimate that the original bill returned anywhere between $5 and $13 for every dollar we spent on it. But the original GI Bill has become woefully outdated, to the point where the average benefit doesn't even cover half the cost of an in-state student's education at a public college.

The Post-9/11 Veterans Act, which has an estimated cost between $2.5 billion and $4 billion, is common-sense legislation. With 51 cosponsors, including nine Republicans, the three other Vietnam War veterans in the Senate and former Secretary of the Navy John Warner, the bill simply updates what the late historian Stephen Ambrose called "the best piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress." Yet, faced with unprecedented filibusters, it needs 60 cosponsors. As de facto leader of the party, McCain could signal to other Republicans to sign on to the bill and assure passage.

This whole thing is peculiar. Updating the GI Bill seems like a political no-brainer. Even if it were a bad idea on the merits, it seems like the kind of thing that would get huge bipartisan support. After all, who's opposed to a college education for returning Iraq vets?

Well, the Department of Defense, for one. They're afraid that updating GI benefits will hurt retention rates as soldiers leave the service to go to college. Charming, no? And of course, it would cost too much. Can't have that when it comes to programs that involve actual help for actual people. Apparently we're better off spending money on sugar subsidies and mediating gang wars in Iraq than we are helping vets get an education. Where's Mr. Straight Talk when you need him?

Kevin Drum 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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MORE ON TRADE....Speaking of trade policy (see below), there's little doubt that the biggest remaining distortion in global trade comes in the form of agricultural tariffs and (especially) subsidies. The European Union's CAP program is at least as bad as anything we do — probably worse, in fact — but what we do is plenty bad. Daniel Imhoff provides a taste of what's in store in our latest farm bill:

What can we citizens expect if the proposed $300-billion farm bill is signed into law? Federally subsidized feed — corn, soybeans and cottonseed — for animal factory farms that spread disease, greenhouse gases and dangerous working conditions wherever they set up shop. (Farm bill "environmental quality" programs will even pay up to $450,000 for the construction of lined "lagoons" to be filled with lethal concentrations of manure.) The continuation of America's obesity campaign, which ensures the cheapest and most widely available foods are made up of such high-calorie ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup, refined flours, saturated fats and unhealthy meat and dairy products. And more federally backed exports of California's water — in the form of cotton and rice, mostly sold overseas.

But here's the one that's really hard to stomach. More than $4 billion in permanent disaster assistance to growers in the Northern Plains. The brainchild of Montana Democrat and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, this is essentially a trust fund to guarantee income to farmers plowing up prairies and grasslands — lands prone to drought and erosion — to plant corn and wheat. Many observers fear a second Dust Bowl.

Question: which is more important to the cause of free trade: (a) passage of the Colombian trade pact or (b) reining in the monstrosity that is U.S. farm policy? The answer is (b) by several light years. So why do we hear so much about the dire consequences of failing to pass a piddling bilateral trade deal with a ruthless Latin American regime but almost nothing about the dire consequences of the hideous $300 billion distortion caused by the latest round of farm subsidies — most of which goes to big agribusiness, not struggling family farms? How about a little more noise on the farm front?

Kevin Drum 11:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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April 9, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TALKIN' ABOUT TRADE....Jared Bernstein says that although he loves himself some cheap imports, opening up trade has some downsides too:

Estimates are that U.S. trade with low-wage countries explains 20 to 30 percent of the increase in wage inequality over the past generation....Tens of millions of incumbent workers — men and women still at work — have lower wages today than they would if trade were more balanced. My colleague Josh Bivens, an economist, estimates that increased trade has cost the typical household about $2,000 over the past generation. That's not a huge dent, but it's not trivial either (and remember, this is a net calculation — it accounts for the low-price effect).

....It would thus be a real advance if [] trade deals devoted less ink to protecting "intellectual property rights" of first-world producers and more to the rights of workers in developing countries. One good reason to get behind globalization is that we'd like to see the world's poor realize some of the prosperity that expanded trade is supposed to generate. When we play overly nicely with repressive governments — when we essentially make exclusive deals between their big investors and our big investors — we sacrifice this opportunity.

Temperamentally, I'm a big fan of opening up trade. When people like Dan Drezner get nervous about protectionist talk during campaigns, I sympathize. Still, I'm a lot less sympathetic than I used to be. Off the top of my head, here's why:

(1) Trade is pretty damn free these days. There's really only a limited amount of progress left to be made. (2) We've had sluggish wage growth for the past seven years and we're now entering (or about to enter) a recession. Expecting public support for trade agreements at a time like this is just quixotic. There's really not much point in banging our collective heads against the free trade wall right now. (3) We've been hearing forever that we should pass trade agreements today and fix their harmful impact on the working class tomorrow. But tomorrow never seems to come, does it? Maybe it's time to switch that policy sequence around for a while. (4) There's not really any danger of seriously regressing on trade. The worst that's likely to happen is a slowdown in new agreements. We'll all live through that. (5) A lot of us who supported NAFTA are sort of wondering what happened to all the benefits that were promised. As near as I can tell, there's a pretty widespread agreement that NAFTA, on balance, hasn't really had much net impact. (6) The Doha round of trade talks is stalled primarily because rich countries, as usual, refuse to reduce agricultural tariffs and subsidies. Anyone who pretends to be a free trader ought to be screaming blue murder about this. So why aren't they? (7) Extending the U.S. intellectual property regime to the rest of the globe doesn't really excite me a whole lot. Personally, I think "Happy Birthday" ought to be in the public domain by now.

All that said, I'm still a temperamental free trader. But the current backlash against further trade agreements is hardly surprising and hardly without merit. Taking a breather to rethink how we approach trade seems pretty reasonable at the moment.

UPDATE: Dan Drezner responds here.

Kevin Drum 8:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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CORNERING THE MARKET ON BIPARTISANSHIP....Over at Tapped, Mark Schmitt tells the story of how John McCain tried to get former Common Cause president Chellie Pingree fired after she grew disenchanted with McCain-Feingold and began championing public financing of congressional elections:

The line that McCain's agents took in trying to oust Pingree was that she had hurt the organization's "bipartisan credibility." Yet what constituted a loss of bipartisan credibility? It was McCain alone. If McCain was happy with the organization, they could call themselves bipartisan; if he turned on them because they didn't follow his agenda, they lost their bipartisan cover, because even if there were other Republicans who supported reform, he occupied the entire space. This was a staggering amount of power for one politician to have over an organization that was meant to be a watchdog on politics, and McCain used that power ruthlessly.

This is where I lost my admiration for McCain. And as I've watched McCain's modus operandi on other issues, such as the torture legislation, I've continued to see echoes of the Common Cause episode: Corner the market on bipartisanship. Move to claim the position of bipartisan intermediary, and then use that position ruthlessly to serve his own purposes or sell out his allies, because they are dependent on the reality or perception of bipartisanship. As a study in the art of exercising power, it's quite impressive. Until people see through it.

Well, maybe a few people will start seeing through it this year. Alternatively, if he releases a few more preening, faux highbrow ads like this latest interminable effort, maybe McCain will simply bore his supporters to death and Obama will win the election by default.

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BIDEN FOR VEEP?....Matt Yglesias runs down a few reasons why John McCain would be ill advised to choose Condi Rice as VP, and I find them all convincing. I'd add a few more too, if I thought anyone was interested. But the whole prospect seems vanishingly unlikely to me, so I won't bother.

But what about this?

I have a similar reaction to Marc Ambinder's suggestion of Joe Biden for Barack Obama. Biden's a sometimes maddening figure, but he's been impressive lately and there's a lot to be said on his behalf. But putting someone who voted for the war, even someone who did so half-heartedly and after making a quasi-promising effort to restrain Bush, seems to muddy way too much of the argument Obama is making.

I don't have a brief one way or the other for Biden — though he certainly fits the traditional loudmouth-attack-dog-who-says-things-the-president-can't-say profile pretty well — but this objection doesn't seem right. Once he leaves the cozy confines of a primary where the anti-war base is enough to win, Obama is going to enter the chillier territory of a general election where he'll need to draw a bunch of votes from the ranks of people who once supported the war. He needs a good way to signal these folks that he doesn't consider them tainted forever by their erstwhile support, and what better way than by choosing a moderately hawkish senator who once favored the war but has since changed his mind? The opposite tack — insisting that he'll associate only with the pure of heart who opposed the war from the beginning — would be something of a disaster. People won't vote for a candidate who tacitly seems to be calling them idiots.

Seen from that perspective, Biden looks like a decent choice to me. Not as good as Warren Buffett, maybe, but still pretty good.

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STUDY: 26% "ANGRY OR UPSET" BY FEMALE PRESIDENT....Last month I blogged about a poll showing that while only (only!) 17% of respondents said they'd have trouble voting for a woman for president, 45% claimed that "most" of the people they know wouldn't do so.

So which is it? Is the 17% number too low because some people won't fess up their true feelings to a pollster? Is the 45% number too high because people are too cynical about their neighbors? Or what?

Via John Sides, some political science types at Northern Illinois University and Loyola Marymount provide an interesting way of measuring something closer to the true answer. They presented a control group with a list of four items and asked how many of those items made them "angry or upset." The average was 2.16 items. (Respondents didn't have to say which items they were.) Then they presented a second group with the same set of items except they added one more: "5. A woman serving as president." This time the average response was 2.42 items. The poll was conducted in March 2006 (so it's probably not merely a reaction to Hillary Clinton personally), sample size was large, and all the usual statistical controls were in place. The full paper is here and has all the details if you're interested.

So what does it mean? The arithmetic is simple: (2.42 - 2.16) x 100 = 26%. This means that 26% of the respondents were angered or upset by the notion of a woman serving as president.

As it turns out, this number is about the same for men and women and it's about the same regardless of whether you're college educated. The oddest finding (I thought) was that the highest level of anger came from the 30-50 age group. Why would that be? Full demographic results are below the fold.

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THREE OR FOUR YEARS?....Tom Ricks on today's continuing congressional testimony from Crocker and Petraeus:

I think that what is going on in these hearings is that General Petraeus really thinks that it is going to take another three or four years to get Iraq to where he thinks he might be able to say it has reached a state of "sustainable security." But he doesn't seem to really want to say that. That strikes me as somewhat too cautious. He has taken risks in Iraq — putting former insurgents on the payroll, putting U.S. troops out to live among the population — but seems risk-averse in his testimony.

Why don't members of Congress pin him down on this? I don't know. It could be that they don't know to ask the question, or they think he will just dance away from it, talking about conditions and such. Or it could be that they really don't want to hear it, because it could turn into a line in the sand: Are you with this plan to hang in for another three or four years of this?

I think it's pretty obvious that it would indeed be hard to pin down Petraeus on this. After all, unlike his battlefield risks, this one seems like a risk with no real upside. Close your eyes and suppose for a moment that he did fess up to a belief that the fighting would last another three or four years. Do you think there are any fence-sitters in Congress who would breathe a sigh of relief and say, "Well, in that case let's keep going, General!"

Of course not. The only thing that keeps this show on the road is its weird combination of hope and fear. Hope that maybe, just maybe, peace and stability will suddenly break out in Baghdad sometime within the next few months; and fear that if we leave, the entire region will collapse into bloody chaos. This is, to coin a phrase, a fragile and easily reversible combination, and if you remove either one of its pillars support for the war would collapse. Expecting candor on this point is not really reality-based.

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BASRA AND IRAN....Trudy Rubin on one of the lessons of Basra:

Most galling to U.S. officials was this: When the going got tough, top Iraqi Shiite officials rushed to the holy city of Qom in Iran to get help mediating a Basra cease-fire with Sadr....In other words, Iraq's leaders had to turn to an Iranian we label a "terrorist" to get Maliki and his American backers out of a jam. The commander of the Quds Brigade apparently told Sadr to cool off.

....We do know — as the Basra affair showed — that Iran is crucial to any Iraq solution. And here is where the next president will have an opportunity to try something different — with Iran.

Iranian officials are clearly awaiting the next American leader. I was told as much by the Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki at the Davos World Economic Forum. The United States and Iran have common interests in avoiding total chaos in Iraq (although the Iranians will continue to stir the pot, so long as they suspect Iraq is a base for U.S. efforts at regime change in Tehran).

The next White House occupant, unburdened by the rhetoric of "axis of evil," can explore whether broad talks without preconditions might enable Washington and Tehran to cooperate on Iraq. That, in turn, would facilitate a U.S. drawdown. Even John McCain will have to consider such newthink if he wants to prevent a U.S. military meltdown.

Jeff Weintraub keeps telling me that I should read Rubin more often. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't (her columns are here). The problem is that her pieces usually strike me as sort of safely sensible, but only occasionally do they tell me something I didn't already know. So I end up reading a couple of them and then wandering off to the glitzier quarters of the blogosphere to look for more stimulation.

Still, no arguments with this one, and it can hardly be said often enough that ignoring Iran and hoping they'll go away is among the more idiotic foreign policy positions in America today — and a sadly bipartisan policy, unfortunately. There's obviously no guarantee that Iran will respond positively to American overtures in the future (their past record on this score isn't especially promising) but for the first time in a while both sides really do have a strong incentive to work out some kind of modus vivendi. From there, who knows? But the alternative, as near as I can tell, is to keep them on the terrorist fringes forever while pushing them into an ever-closer embrace with China. How that's preferable to some regular high-level chatting — and perhaps even the re-opening of an embassy in Tehran — is an enduring mystery.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Jon Stewart, on recent reports that the FAA has allowed airlines to ignore required inspection routines:

With this administration, if a passenger blows up a plane, it's a failure in the war on terror. But if the plane just blows up on its own — eh, it's the market self-regulating.

Video here.

Kevin Drum 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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MORTGAGE BROKER HELL....What's the deal with all those low-income families who took out subprime loans they now find themselves unable to repay? Did they knowingly take foolish risks that they're now (deservedly) paying the price for, or were they bamboozled by predatory lenders on the lookout for suckers to fleece?

Some of both, of course. But the majority of subprime loans in recent years were originated by mortgage brokers, not retail banks and credit unions, and because subprime rates aren't generally publicly available and the loans themselves tend to be fairly complex, they're ripe for abuse. And abused they were. The Center for Responsible Lending compared 1.7 million "matched pairs" of loans from 2004 through 2006 and found that for loans with similar risk profiles, brokers — the very people who are supposed to help you find the best loan deal available — charged substantially more than retail lenders. Here's the chart:

Bottom line: if you were a high-income borrower getting a prime loan, the kind of borrower with plenty of options, brokers didn't rip you off. In fact, they helped you. But if you were a poor borrower getting a subprime loan — precisely the most vulnerable type of borrower, the one who most needed real help — mortgage brokers screwed you. Over the course of 30 years, the average subprime borrower getting a loan from a broker "would pay $35,874 more in interest payments, equivalent to an interest rate approximately 1.3 percentage points higher than a similar borrower with a retail loan." Such sweethearts.

The full report is here. They've got some recommendations to go with their findings.

Kevin Drum 1:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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CROCKER/PETRAEUS WRAPUP....Various tidbits from Democracy Arsenal's liveblogging of the Crocker/Petraeus hearings on Tuesday:

  • Ambassador Crocker again refuses to engage in hypotheticals with Senator Biden. Unless we hypothetically talk about leaving Iraq, in which case he is absolutely sure that everything would fall apart and the world would end.

  • When asked by Senator John Warner whether Iraq was making us safer Petraeus kept hedging and stated that it would ultimately be up to history. Not very comforting.

  • Obama was able to hit Petraeus and Crocker very hard....He got Petraeus to agree with him that the total elimination of Al Qaeda is an impossible standard for withdrawal. Next he goes after Crocker's points about Iranian influence, pointing out that both Iran and Al Qaeda are in Iraq because we invaded and that we can not expect to eliminate Iranian involvement.

    Then came the hammer. Obama pointed out that if the definition of success is put so high - no Al Qaeda, no Iranian influence, a prosperous diverse democracy we will be there forever. He then points out that we still, after 8 hours of testimony, have no definition of success....Crocker's weak response its "hard and complicated."

More here.

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

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April 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FED WATCH....The Federal Reserve just released the minutes from its March 18th meeting:

In the forecast prepared for this meeting, the staff substantially revised down its projection for the pace of real GDP throughout 2008....The staff projection showed a contraction of real GDP in the first half of 2008 followed by a slow rise in the second half. The recently enacted fiscal stimulus package was expected to boost real GDP in the second half of 2008, but that effect was projected to unwind in 2009.

Two comments. No — three. First, this means that the Fed staff officially thinks we're currently in a recession. Second, do they really think that this year's fiscal stimulus package, which consists of tax rebate checks mailed out in Q2, is going to have a noticeable effect on GDP in Q3 and Q4? Most of the economists I read, liberal and conservative alike, seem to agree that its effect on consumer demand will be pretty minuscule.

And third, don't click the link and read the whole thing unless you're made of fairly stern stuff. It's a fantastic litany of bad news and lousy economic indicators. Housing, inflation, durable goods, nondurable goods, employment, industrial production, consumer sentiment — you name it, they thought it sucked. These guys are just not optimistic about much of anything.

Kevin Drum 10:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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PAKISTAN....Via Matt Yglesias, I see that Fred Kagan has a long piece up at National Review arguing (surprise!) that liberals who want to withdraw from Iraq are a bunch of defeatist appeasers like Neville Chamberlain. That's a fresh approach, isn't it? And it doesn't get much better from there. It's mostly a phoned-in mishmash of straw men, race-baiting, appeals to cultural solidarity (against the "hyper-sophisticates" who oppose the war), chest thumping, semantic games, and, despite its title, virtually no attempt to tell us "Why Iraq Matters."

However, credit where it's due: Kagan does make one good point. At the very end of the piece he takes on the argument that Iraq is a distraction from the real war on terror:

Considering [] that there are very few and very small al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, that al-Qaeda in South Asia is mostly in Pakistan, and that none of those insisting that the U.S. abandon Iraq to fight the "real" enemy in Afghanistan have proposed any meaningful plans for dealing with Chitral and Waziristan where that "real" enemy actually is [...] how, exactly, is Iraq a distraction from the war on terror?

Now, as it happens, I think most of us hyper-sophisticates believe that Iraq is more than just a distraction from fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There's a much broader argument here about the effective use of American military power that Kagan ignores. Still, he's got a point about Pakistan. That is where al-Qaeda is mostly holed up these days, and no one — not liberals, not conservatives, not anyone — really has any bright ideas about how to root them out. Long story short, it's not clear if the U.S. military could do it even if we wanted them to, and in any case, no one wants to start a war with Pakistan.

Obviously this isn't a reason to stay in Iraq. If anything, it's yet another demonstration of the limits of military force. Still, it's a good question: what should we do about al-Qaeda in Pakistan? Nobody ever seems to want to talk very concretely about that.

Kevin Drum 9:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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SO HOW IS MUQTADA AL-SADR REALLY DOING?....Iraqi politics is pretty opaque. That's not because they play a deeper game than anyone else, just that they play a game that few Westerners are privy to. This means that there's an awful lot of guesswork about who's up, who's down, and what's really going on behind the scenes.

So, with that throat clearing out of the way, how is "firebrand cleric" and U.S. bête noire Muqtada al-Sadr really doing these days? The bulk of the evidence, I think, suggests that he's doing OK. He seems well positioned to win the October elections in the southern provinces; his Mahdi Army held its own in the recent government offensive in Basra; Prime Minister Maliki's colleagues eventually had to send emissaries to Iran to sue for peace; Sadr was the one dictating the terms for an end to violence; and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has apparently declined to ask him to disarm. Put all this together, and Sadr looks to be in a fairly strong position.

But what about the evidence pointing in the other direction? For starters, the Iraqi National Security Council released an emphatically anti-Sadr statement this weekend that was supported by virtually every Iraqi faction except the Sadrists themselves. The AP dispatch I linked to last night suggested that even the leader of the Sadrists in parliament took this seriously:

"We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament," lawmaker Hassan al-Rubaie said Sunday. "Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament."

....President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said Sunday that the statement was adopted after "heated, cordial, frank and transparent discussion," Al-Rubaie and another Sadrist lawmaker who attended objected to the call for militias to disband, he said.

Al-Rubaie confirmed Talabani's account and said "our political isolation was very clear and real during the meeting."

What else? There's also some (very tentative) evidence that Iran might be taking Maliki's side in his attempt to weaken the Mahdi Army:

Iran voiced support on Monday for Iraq's prime minister in a crackdown on a Shi'ite militia but blamed U.S. forces for civilian deaths in the fighting.

....[Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali] Hosseini, whose comments were translated by Iran's state Press TV satellite station, said Maliki's action was aimed at "confronting illegal armed groups" and this was in the interest of Iraq and its neighbors.

Now, Iran supports both Sadr's Mahdi Army and ISCI's Badr Organization, which is affiliated with Maliki's Dawa Party (and therefore, ironically, with us). However, Iran's primary proxy is unquestionably ISCI (which is, yes, doubly ironic), and it's at least possible that they may view the current turmoil as a good opportunity to begin the process of withdrawing support from Sadr and backing ISCI more wholeheartedly.

Then there's Ryan Crocker's comment today suggesting that the rogue elements of the Mahdi Army (aka "Special Groups") have linked back up with the mother organization. Eric Martin, who has a more devious imagination than I do, thinks the underlying truth of this assertion is less important than the fact that Crocker is asserting it:

What that signals to me is that Petraeus/Crocker are dropping the Special Groups pretense and are no longer probing a conciliatory track with Sadr. Petraeus/Crocker will resume pre-cease fire attempts to tar the entire Sadrist current with assorted sins — again, real and imagined. That, to me, looks like the rhetorical groundwork for a full-on confrontation, moreso than even the overly aggressive culling actions described above. A lifting of the cease-fire would be the logical next step if Crocker's choice of words is as significant as I fear.

So: (1) Sadr's political isolation may be increasing, (2) Iran may be thinking about reducing its support of Sadr, and (3) the U.S. military may be laying the groundwork for a full scale assault on the Mahdi Army.

This hardly bears repeating, but as with nearly all analysis of Iraq these days, this is mostly speculation. As near as I can tell, even regional experts don't really know what's going on in Iraq right now, and all the rest of us can do is keep our eyes and ears open and see what happens. All things considered, it still looks to me like Sadr's organization is coming through the current fighting either intact or even a little stronger than before, but there's evidence on both sides. So take this as a devil's advocate post, and take it with the usual shaker of salt. And if anyone tells you that they know for sure what's really happening in Iraq, that's a good sign you should put them on your permanent "ignore" list.

Kevin Drum 6:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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HOUSING BUBBLE WATCH....Will housing prices keep falling until they get back to their pre-bubble value? Brad DeLong doesn't think so:

The rise of Asia and the resulting demand by the rich and by governments for U.S. assets to hedge political risk is likely to keep savings glutting for decades. We aren't buiding more superhighways, there are no major transportation improvements on the horizon, America is filling up, and so land-value gradients are on the rise. If the income distribution continues to erode, we will wind up with higher prices for scarce positional goods — chief among which is location, location, location.

My guess is that we will ultimately give back half of the doubling...

I think that's right, and I'd add the fact that rising average earnings have, over time, increased the percentage of income that families are willing (and able) to spend on housing. Different regions will react differently, and prices everywhere still have a ways to go before the housing market bottoms out, but I doubt that the national average will ever get all the way back to its circa 2000 level.

This is, by the way, both good news and bad. The bad news is that housing prices are probably going to end up permanently higher than they were in the past. The good news is that the market will bottom out a little bit sooner than the most pessimistic estimates would have it, which is the first step toward recovery and stability. Every silver lining has a cloud, and vice versa.

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McCAIN BEFUDDLEMENT WATCH....Ilan Goldenberg is watching the Crocker/Petraeus hearings so you don't have to. Second person up is John McCain, who suggests that despite its recent problems, al-Qaeda in Iraq is still an important threat in Iraq (video here). "Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shi'ites all overall?" he asks Petraeus — before hastily adding "or Sunnis or anybody else." Ilan Goldenberg comments:

So, I've watched this video a number of times because I really wasn't sure at first. But McCain did genuinely mix up Sunnis and Shi'a again. Saying that Al Qaeda was a Shi'a group before quickly correcting himself. Now, I know that there is a bit of gotcha going on here. But this man claims that his greatest qualification for the Presidency is that he understands foreign policy. But the differences between Sunni and Shi'a matter. They matter a lot! And this nasty habit of mixing it up just seriously needs to stop.

I suppose that eventually the press is bound to notice that McCain is seriously confused about the religious and political dynamics of Iraq and the greater Middle East, right? Maybe around December or so.

In other AQI news, Dana Goldstein reports that McCain isn't the only person in the room sowing confusion. Ryan Crocker's seems a little more deliberate, though:

Throughout this Senate hearing, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have persisted in shortening "Al Qaeda in Iraq" to plain old "Al Qaeda," despite the fact that these two organization have different leaderships, geneses, and missions. Yet when Crocker mentioned "Hezbollah in Iraq," he made sure to clarify, "That doesn't imply a connection to Lebanese Hezbollah."

Hmm. Could there, just maybe, be a political motivation for confusing our "Al Qaeda" terms?

Ya think?

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SADR AND SISTANI....A couple of days ago Muqtada al-Sadr said he would consult Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other senior Shiite clerics and abide by their ruling if they told him to disband his Mahdi Army. So how'd that go?

Iraq's top Shiite religious leaders have told anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr not to disband his Mehdi Army, an al-Sadr spokesman said Monday amid fresh fighting in the militia's Baghdad strongholds.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki demanded Sunday that the cleric disband his militia, which waged two uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004, or see his supporters barred from public office.

But al-Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi said al-Sadr has consulted with Iraq's Shiite clerical leadership "and they refused that." He did not provide details of the talks.

Juan Cole provides some acid commentary on Sadr's original offer and the giddy American response to it:

The US press went wild for this supposed report that Muqtada al-Sadr said he would dissolve his militia if Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani ordered it. Folks, he always says that when there is a controversy. (He said the same thing in spring, 2004). He says it because he knows it makes him look reasonable to the Shiite public. He says it because he knows that the grand ayatollahs are not going to touch the matter with a ten foot pole. They are not so foolish as to take responsibility for dissolving a militia that they had nothing to do with creating. And that is probably the real meaning of this CNN report that they 'refused' when asked. I doubt the grand ayatollahs in Najaf actively commanded Muqtada to keep his militia. They just declined to get drawn in.

There's further acid commentary at the link.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

THROWING MUD ON THE WALL....The ability of conservatives to reach back through the mists of time and dig up weird stuff to explain why liberals are really to blame for some manifest failure of conservatism (or, alternatively, why conservatism is really responsible for some ostensibly liberal success) has long filled me with awe. Seriously. They're really good at this. Every piece of right-wing crankery in the world eventually has its day this way.

Anyway, via Ezra, Robert Gordon has the latest example of this, and it even includes some bonus race-baiting. Good stuff.

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By: Kevin Drum

SPECIAL GROUPS....Muqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire last year has been widely credited as one of the key drivers of the recent decrease in violence in Iraq (along with the Sunni Awakening and the surge). At the time, observers suggested that one of the reasons Sadr declared the cease-fire was to give himself time to regain authority over rogue elements of the Mahdi Army that had slipped out of his control. These "Special Groups" are the elements that the Iraqi government was supposedly targeting during the recent operation in Basra.

However, most analysts — and certainly Sadr himself — believe that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was, in fact, targeting not just the Special Groups but the entire Mahdi Army. Why? Because he wanted to weaken Sadr's influence in the runup to elections in October, which Sadr was in a good position to win in the southern provinces surrounding Basra. On that note, Tom Ricks, liveblogging today from the congressional testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker, passes along the following after-action report from the Battle of Basra:

Later in his prepared statement, Crocker makes real news. In the wake of the Basra operation, he reveals, Moqtada al-Sadr's main militia, Jayash al-Mahdi, seems to have linked back up with the so-called "Special Groups," or splinter elements of the militia.

I hadn't seen that before. As Crocker says in his statement, that is "a dangerous development." But he goes on to say there are still signs of distinction between the groups, such as Sadr's disavowal of heavy weapons. I dunno — seems like grasping at straws to me.

At any rate, I take back my previous scoffing at Crocker's diplobabble. He was doing what journalists call "burying the lede."

In retrospect, this shouldn't be surprising. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all. Sadr might have been genuinely unhappy with the actions and independence of the Special Groups (and vice versa), but once both were attacked, it made sense for them to put aside their differences and get back together. A dangerous development indeed.

UPDATE: In comments, Eric Martin offers a different interpretation of Crocker's comments:

I always thought that Petraeus/Crocker were going out of their way to be diplomatic to Sadr by depicting the violence as only against "Special Groups." So I find the switch by Crocker to be the dangerous development more than the claim that JAM has re-linked with the "Special Groups." The term was used for a purpose, and now that purposes no longer seems operable.

Meaning: Our policy vis-a-vis Sadr has shifted from conciliatory to all out war. So now we can drop the pretense.

Maybe so.

Kevin Drum 11:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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April 7, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

IS MUQTADA AL-SADR DOOMED?....Rich Lowry passes along an email from a friend:

On the political front, Sadr now finds himself completely isolated. Key leaders of his own movement are now urging him to accept the Maliki government's demands to disband the militia entirely.

Saturday, Iraq's president and two vice-presidents, along with every other major political group in Iraq (except the Sadrists) joined in the condemnation of Sadr's militia, and endorsed Prime Minister Maliki's demand that the militia disarm. Sadr's militia is now virtually the only militia left in Iraq that still maintains an outlaw posture, the only one that still challenges the authority of the Iraqi Security Forces or the Coalition. (Other major militias have disbanded, transforming into political organizations and joining — or becoming — legitimate security forces, which explains why you never hear about any other militia in the news.)

It would certainly be nice if this were all true, but I'm afraid you have to put a pretty big thumb on the scale to get there.

Are "key leaders of his own movement" urging Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army? Not that I've heard. This AP dispatch quotes the leader of the Sadrist bloc in parliament acknowledging that the Sadrists "are in a predicament" and complaining that some of Sadr's close advisors "are radicals," but this is a far cry from anyone urging him to disband the Mahdi Army. That would be tantamount to suicide, and it's pretty unlikely that any of Sadr's people are recommending that.

Has "every other major political group in Iraq" endorsed Maliki's demand that the Mahdi Army disarm? Sure. As long they don't have to disarm, everyone in Iraq is in favor of the other guys disarming.

And is it true that only the Mahdi Army retains an "outlaw posture"? Yes it is — but only because all the other militias have become either legally recognized (like the Kurdish peshmerga); have co-opted the official security forces (like the Iranian-backed Badr Organization); or are under the de facto protection of the American military (like the Sunni Sahwa councils). That doesn't mean these other militias no longer exist, only that Maliki has decided to let them be. Under those circumstances, Sadr is unlikely to agree to a unilateral disarmament.

There's a lot going on in Iraq right now, and I won't pretend to know what's really happening beneath the surface. But take this stuff with a big shaker of salt. It sounds a lot more like spin than substance.

Kevin Drum 9:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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POLITICS IN IRAQ....Laura Rozen passes on the following Reuters dispatch:

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will consult senior religious leaders and disband his Mehdi Army [JAM] militia if they instruct him to, a senior aide said on Monday.

....Senior aide Hassan Zargani said Sadr would seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, as well as senior Shi'ite clergy based in Iran, on whether to dissolve the Mehdi Army, and would obey their orders.

That effectively puts the militia's fate in the hands of the reclusive Sistani, 77, a cleric revered by all of Iraq's Shi'ite factions and whose edicts carry the force of Islamic law, but who almost never intervenes in politics.

Laura quotes a friend who speculates that if Sistani orders the Mehdi Army disbanded, "It could be bloody couple of months, especially if the movement splinters into a thousand violent pieces in the context of impending provincial elections." No question about that. But if I had to guess, I'd say that Sadr would be doing this only if he felt pretty confident that no order to disband will be forthcoming. That would be a tacit approval of keeping JAM armed and intact, which in turn would be a pretty effective answer to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's calls for Sadr to disband his militia and lay down his arms. Maliki said yesterday that political parties maintaining militias wouldn't be allowed to take part in October's elections — an announcement pretty clearly aimed solely at Sadr — but he'll be unable to make that stick if Sistani doesn't take his side. Sadr and JAM could easily come out of this stronger than before.

Or maybe this is all a big nothing. Maybe no ruling is seriously being pursued, and maybe the clerics will continue to stay out of internal Iraqi politics. But it's an interesting game of cat and mouse being played out right now.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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GOOSING THE ECONOMY....Larry Bartels says that Democratic presidents produce higher economic growth than Republican presidents, and that the differences in average growth rates for middle-class and poor families (but not affluent families, apparently, who do well under both parties) are statistically significant by conventional social-scientific standards. Charts here.

So what's going on? Paul Krugman says he's uncertain about Bartels's results because he can't figure out a "plausible mechanism" for them — a common reaction among economists, who generally don't believe that presidents influence the economy enough to produce the kinds of differences Bartels documents. Bartels himself isn't sure what causes the effect either, but takes a crack at an explanation here:

One of my aims in writing Unequal Democracy was to prod economists and policy analysts to devote more attention to precisely that question. Douglas Hibbs did important work along these lines in the 1980s, documenting significant partisan differences in post-war macroeconomic policies. He found that Democrats favored expansionary policies producing substantially higher employment and growth rates, while Republicans endured and sometimes prolonged recessions in order to keep inflation in check. (Not coincidentally, unemployment mostly affects income growth among relatively poor people, while inflation mostly affects income growth among relatively affluent people.)

In recent decades taxes and transfers have probably been more important. Social spending. Business regulation or lack thereof. And don't forget the minimum wage. Over the past 60 years, the real value of the minimum wage has increased by 16 cents per year under Democratic presidents and declined by 6 cents per year under Republican presidents; that's a 3% difference in average income growth for minimum wage workers, with ramifications for many more workers higher up the wage scale. So, while I don't pretend to understand all the ways in which presidents' policy choices shape the income distribution, I see little reason to doubt that the effects are real and substantial.

Tyler Cowen, noting that the biggest changes in inequality come in the second year of a president's term, suggests that anti-inflationary zeal is the causal mechanism:

Republicans are more willing to break the back of inflation and risk an immediate recession. Alternatively, it could be said that central bankers expect enough support for tough, anti-inflation decisions only from Republican Presidents....Other plausible channels for income inequality effects, such as tax and regulatory decisions, would not be concentrated in the second year of each administration.

....Inflation is good for the poor in the short run, since many poor are debtors. But inflation is bad for the poor in the long run. Just ask anyone who lived through the New Zealand inflation of the 1970s. So Bartels could have entitled his key graph: "Democratic Presidents live for the short run and we need a Republican President every now and then."

It's worth noting that there's a fair amount of agreement between these two views. The low-inflation environment of the past decade or two may have broken the link, but before that Democrats were certainly more oriented toward wage growth than Republicans, who were generally more obsessed with keeping a check on budget deficits and inflation.

But policy almost certainly matters too, and I'm not sure Tyler is right about this being inconsistent with the observation that growth differences are highest in the second year of an administration. Presidents tend to be at the peak of their power in their first year, and that's when they're most able to pass major economic reforms: think of Bush and Reagan's tax cuts, Clinton's economic plan, and LBJ's Great Society. It's not implausible that, on average, the biggest changes come in the first year of a new administration and show their biggest effect in the second year.

In any case, the evidence that Democratic administrations provide higher growth is surprisingly robust. And it's not just growth: Democratic presidents also provide lower inflation, lower unemployment, higher stock market growth, and lower inequality — and they do so regardless of whether you build a lag time into the analysis to account for the time it takes for economic policies to have an effect. It's true that, by all accounts, nobody believes presidents have enough impact on the economy to be responsible for this, but there are now enough postwar data points to make coincidence an unlikely explanation. Something seems to be going on. It's well worth some serious investigation.

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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MELTDOWN UPDATE....An American withdrawal from Iraq might lead to a more intense civil war within Iraq itself, but would it also lead to a massive regional meltdown of the kind that war supporters so often warn of? In testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last week, Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont spelled out why this is unlikely:

The Iranians already have what they want in Iraq — substantial influence both with the Baghdad government and with major actors in border regions to the south and the north. The Turks do not want to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan or annex it. The Saudi army is hardly capable of serious cross-border operations. Foreigners will play in Iraqi politics as long as Iraq is weak and Iraqi parties seek foreign support. They are doing it now, with the American military there. They will continue to do it. But they do not appear to have the desire (in some cases, like Turkey and Iran) or the means (Saudi Arabia) to intervene in a direct, sustained military way that could lead to a wider regional war.

The whole thing is a worth read. Via Judah Grunstein, who also notes the bad news that the Anbar Awakening, by giving Saudi Arabia cover for supporting Sunni groups in Iraq, might actually make a larger regional war slightly more likely.

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April 6, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE CLINTONS' MONEY....Mickey Kaus wants answers about the Clinton family dough:

The press is focused on where all that money ($109 million) came from. Fair enough. But where did it all go? This seems like a genuine mystery. It's not as if the Clinton's live especially lavishly, or own huge estates. It's not like Bill has to pay for all his hotels and travel. The Clintons only gave about $44 million to the IRS and to charities (including their own). Where's the rest of it? If it's all invested, what is it invested in? Green companies pursuing sustainable growth and living wages? Or hedge funds seeking the highest returns? And assuming it's invested, what are they going to do with it later?

I don't get it. Have we ever asked this about any previous presidential candidate? Reagan? Bush Sr.? Bush Jr.? Kerry? (Actually, that's a genuine question. Have we?) In any case, Hillary already has to file an annual financial disclosure form with the Senate, and the 2006 form shows that the bulk of the Clinton family fortune is invested in Citibank deposit accounts and a qualified blind trust. The 2007 form will be disclosed in a couple of months. What more is there to know? Or are we just making up special rules for the Clintons?

Kevin Drum 1:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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April 5, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE COLBERT BUMP....Is it really true that congressional candidates who appear on Stephen Colbert's show do better than candidates who don't? Or is it merely truthy? Henry Farrell summarizes the surprising researchy answer from actual political scientist James Fowler:

Democratic candidates who appear on the Report receive a statistically significant "Colbert bump" in campaign donations, raising 44% more money in a 30-day period after appearing on the show. However, there is no evidence of a similar boost for Republicans. These results constitute the first scientific evidence of Stephen Colbert's influence on political campaigns.

Indeed. Fowler explains his methodology here:

To evaluate absolute differences between Colbert candidates and others I use a Wilcoxon signed rank test. This test is non-parametric, which is a super-cool term that means I don't assume that a histogram of the data produces a nice, "normal" bell shape. In fact, I know the data doesn't look that way — it looks more like a skateboard ramp, starting high near zero and curving down sharply to become flat. For percentage differences, I use a related non-parametric (so cool) test called the Mann Whitney U. I'm sure Stephen will be pleased that there is a "man" in his statistical test (though what kind of a man calls himself 'Whitney'?).

And of course there are graphs. What kind of scientificy research would it be if it didn't have graphs?

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RESIDUAL FORCE UPDATE....Does Barack Obama secretly want to keep 60-80,000 troops in Iraq through 2010? That's what Colin Kahl, a "key adviser," recommends in an academic paper circulated privately at a recent workshop — "a plan," says reporter Eli Lake, "at odds with the public pledge of the Illinois senator to withdraw combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office." But Marc Lynch, who was also at the workshop, calls foul:

Let's just reflect on the absurdity of all of this....Maybe a few dozen people even knew that Kahl had a role at all in the Obama campaign. This is "gotcha" reduced to absurdity. The paper in question was clearly an academic one, reflecting [Kahl's] own personal views. It wasn't even circulated to the campaign, and has nothing to do with Obama's "real" views on Iraq.

Point taken. Presidential advisors have lots of different views — and should have lots of different views. It's newsworthy what these views are, but nobody should jump to the conclusion that any one of them is controlling unless there's some good reason to think so. And anyway, Marc has other fish to fry:

The only really interesting question here is who in that small, closed workshop organized by Colin Kahl decided to screw his host by violating the non-attribution agreement and handing the paper over to Eli Lake? I was there, y'know. I know who was there. By my count, there's about three suspects... and one of them convincingly protests his innocence. I've got an inkling about which of the other two it is. Care to fess up?

Good luck with that!

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April 4, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY BUTTERFLY BLOGGING....Inkblot and Domino are on vacation this week. (I know, I know. As if there's a difference.) Taking their place is my mother's cat William, roaming around in her new native-plant, water-friendly, climate-appropriate front yard garden. It's about three months old and coming in nicely. Not a single plant lost yet! And in one of those weird "small blogosphere" coincidences, the landscape designer who installed the garden turns out to be Jerome Armstrong's cousin.

And of course spring is now springing, which means the new garden is starting to attract lots of pollinating bees and fluttering butterflies. The bees are a little too small to catch on camera, but one of the butterflies is on the right. If you live out west, this should all put you in a nice springtime frame of mind. If you don't, it's a harbinger of pleasanter times to look forward to. In the meantime, you can always warm up by offering your cat a lap.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Chris Clark, who just sold the domain name pizza.com, which he purchased for $20 in 1994, for $2.6 million:

"In '94, you could have just registered everything and anything. I think about that now, yeah."

Me too.

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MUKASEY FOLLOWUP....Glenn Greenwald has a followup today on Attorney General Michael Mukasey's claim that the old version of FISA prevented us from intercepting a communication between Afghanistan and one of the 9/11 hijackers in 2001. Glenn finds a note in the 9/11 Commission report that might refer to the missed call Mukasey was talking about, but the report clearly states that FISA was not to blame:

Critically, the Report emphasized that FISA provided all of the authority needed to have intercepted that communication, to learn of its domestic origins and to disseminate it to the FBI and other domestic intelligence agencies. To the extent the NSA failed to do so, this had nothing to do with FISA or any other legal restraints or civil liberties, but rather, with poor intelligence practices....The pre-9/11 failures, as the Joint Inquiry itself concluded, were failures resulting from how the NSA used its legal authorities, not from insufficient legal authorities or excessive legal restraints.

And down the rabbit hole we go. Again: this deserves some followup from the press. Mukasey has spoken about this in public, so if he's claiming that FISA prevented us from intercepting a key call before 9/11 he also needs to defend that in public. Did this really happen or didn't it?

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IMAGINE....Steve Benen plays "Imagine If A Democrat Had Said This." I can imagine only too well.

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ECONOMIC UPDATE.... Jobless claims spiked upward last week (see chart on right), the unemployment rate has risen to 5.1%, and nonfarm payrolls fell by 80,000 last month. Brad DeLong:

If you didn't think recession was on the way before, you need to think again.

OK, OK, I believe. Now can you please get off my chest? I'm having a hard time breathing.

So this makes — what? Three recessions in a row that were kicked off by an external shock of some kind? Four? Five? Oil shocks in 1973, 1979/81, and 1991, the dotcom bust in 2001, and the credit crisis (and a really slow-moving oil shock?) in 2008. I'm not sure about 1991, though. But if recessions are kicked off more by huge external shocks these days than by Fed-induced inflation fighting, shouldn't we all be thinking harder about how to control those shocks a little better? Time for the big brains to get to work on this.

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ROOMMATES.COM....This is interesting. In an 8-3 ruling, the 9th Circuit Court has ruled that Roommates.com is breaking the law:

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided Thursday that a website may be found liable for violating fair housing laws by matching roommates according to gender, sexual orientation and parenthood.

...."A real estate broker may not inquire as to the race of a prospective buyer, and an employer may not inquire as to the religion of a prospective employee," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the majority. "If such questions are unlawful when posed face-to-face by telephone, they don't magically become lawful when asked electronically online."

....Thursday's majority said Roommates.com differed from the other sites because it was not a mere passive conduit of information. Site users are required to select from drop-down menus whether they want to live with "straight or gay" males, only with "straight" males, only with "gay" males or with "no males," the court said.

I haven't thought about this enough to really have an opinion about it, and I have no idea if it will be upheld or reversed on appeal. But it's yet another indication that the web triumphalists of the 90s, who were convinced that the internet was a special little playground immune from the dead hand of plodding real-world governments, were wrong. That never made any more sense than the notion that the web would put plodding old multinational corporations out of business either, but there you go. Turns out the plodders still have some life left in them after all.

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THE LAW OF RULES....Josiah Lee Auspitz is a rules geek. Party rules, that is: "I have written scholarly articles and op-ed pieces, testified, lobbied and litigated, presented maps, tables and charts, consulted, advised and given interviews on the topic....In other words, I am a complete party rules bore. I suppose it would be more dignified to present myself as a political scientist, but I have no illusions."

Three years out of four — and in most cases four years out of four — that would make Auspitz a lonely man. But party rules are unusually interesting this year, and not just for the Democrats. Did you know, for example, that John McCain quite possibly owes his victory this year to the fact that in 2000 the GOP reversed the "order of precedence" in Rule 15 between state party rules and state law? I didn't. But if you read "The Law of Rules," available exclusively online, Auspitz will tell you all about it.

And what about the Democratic side? Auspitz says everything there is going according to plan:

As designed, the competition quickly winnowed itself down to three and then two candidates with national rather than narrow sectional or racial/ethnic appeal. As designed, it greatly increased grassroots participation. And as designed, it has provided in advance that any deadlock will be settled by a pre-existing ex officio group of "party leaders and elected officials" (abbreviated as PLEOs in intra-party documents and called "super delegates" in the press, a term originally introduced with snide intent by those opposed to their creation).

There's much more about the Democratic rules and how they came about, as well as loads of detail about exactly how delegates and superdelegates are apportioned. Some of it is stuff that's already been hashed out quite a bit in the blogosphere, but a lot of it was new to me. It's a genuinely fascinating piece if being a rules geek appeals even slightly to you. Check it out.

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BASRA UPDATE....So how did the Iraqi security forces do in their battle against the Mahdi Army in Basra? Al-Zaman reported earlier this week that "thousands" of police officers and "at least two army regiments" had either defected or refused to fight, but I've seen no other confirmation of that until today. Here's the Washington Post:

A senior official in Iraq's Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss military operations publicly, said Iraqi troops were overwhelmed by the second day of fighting.

....The official said he estimated that 30 percent of the Iraqi troops abandoned the fight before a cease-fire was reached. He also said that soldiers had been hindered by ammunition and food shortages and that some Iraqi police troops, who were supposed to be backing the Iraqi army, had actually supported the militias.

...."If the British and American forces were not there, the Mahdi Army would have gained a victory," he said.

That would put the number of nonperforming troops at about 4,000. Now here's the New York Times:

A senior American military official said that he understood that 1,000 to 1,500 Iraqi forces had deserted or underperformed....Three officials said that among those who had been relieved of duty for refusing to fight were Col. Rahim Jabbar and Lt. Col. Shakir Khalaf, the commander and deputy commander of an entire brigade affiliated with the Interior Ministry.

And this from CNN: "A closely held U.S. military intelligence analysis of the fighting showed that Iraqi security forces controlled less than a quarter of the city [of Basra], according to U.S. officials in the United States and Iraq. They said Basra's police units were deeply infiltrated by members of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army."

So anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 troops refused to fight — and if I had to guess, I'd say that the real number is closer to the high end than the low — and by the time fighting was over the army controlled only a quarter of Basra. Not a good sign.

In related news, Muqtada al-Sadr is calling for a million-man march in Najaf to protest the American occupation; Maliki is apparently set to break the truce negotiated last weekend already; and the Sunni tribes are pissed off that Maliki is hiring 10,000 new security forces from local tribes even though he's been telling them for months that no more slots are available.

And the good news? Well, things are relatively calm for the moment and the Iraqi army, though bloodied, is still intact. Take that for what it's worth if you're the optimistic type.

Kevin Drum 1:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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April 3, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

LEVERAGE AND EXUBERANCE....A couple of days ago I read someone, somewhere, suggesting that the problem with Wall Street these days is that it's just too damn easy to make money. Practically anything you put your hands to generates wild truckloads of cash, and this promotes reckless behavior.

Thanks to my rapidly declining brainpower, I don't remember where I saw this. Which is too bad, because I wanted to write a post saying that I think it's wrong. In fact, I suspect it's 180 degrees wrong. It strikes me that the real problem is that in recent years markets have become so hyper-efficient that it's really hard to make lots of money from purely financial transactions. The competition is too good, spreads are too thin, computers are too powerful, and trading windows are too short. So what to do?

Two things. The first is to rely on absolute mountains of leverage. If a particular kind of hedge offers a potential spread of, say, 0.1%, then you need to invest a billion dollars to even begin to make any serious money. Obviously this makes the downside risk enormous if your bet turns out to be wrong.

The second is.....what to call it? Not fraud, certainly. Not that. Perhaps hocus pocus? Agressive salesmanship? Exuberance? Whatever.

Over at Calculated Risk, Tanta picks up on this theme, arguing that our current credit crisis isn't really due to the rocket-science complexity of CDOs and SIVs, but rather due to excessive leverage and excessive, um, exuberance. The problem is that Mortgage Backed Securities are, fundamentally, sort of boring and low yielding, so something had to be done about that:

The lurking concept here is "leverage." You want to make the big bucks investing in MBS? You leverage them. That's where those CDOs came from. A whole lot of this complexity is driven by the "need" to goose the yield, not by some essential opacity of the underlying credits....The complexity came in because you can't get a tranche paying 12% out of a bunch of loans that pay 8% unless you create complex cash-flow structures hedged by complex rate swaps leading to re-securitization of tranches in new vehicles (parts of the MBS become CDOs, for instance).

Of course, a mania for leverage is nothing new: the stock market crash of 1929, for example, was partly fueled by low margin requirements that caused investors to take huge losses when the market started to tank. (Margin requirements were eventually raised after the creation of the SEC in 1934.) More recently, the collapse of the hyper-leveraged hedge fund Long Term Capital Management in 1998 prompted the following warning from Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin:

The events in global financial markets in the summer and fall of 1998 demonstrated that excessive leverage can greatly magnify the negative effects of any event or series of events on the financial system as a whole....Although LTCM is a hedge fund, this issue is not limited to hedge funds. Other financial institutions, including some banks and securities firms, are larger, and generally more highly leveraged, than hedge funds....The near collapse of LTCM illustrates the need for all participants in our financial system, not only hedge funds, to face constraints on the amount of leverage they assume.

Well, perhaps Wall Street did need to "face constraints" on their use of leverage, but it turns out that a stern talking-to wasn't enough to get their attention. And so we end up where we are today. We still need to restrain the use of leverage among our exuberant friends on Wall Street, and considering the price we're paying for all this leverage and exuberance, this time the restraint needs to be a little more concrete. This is why, at a minimum, we need new regulations requiring consistent capital requirements among all financial institutions.

And the "exuberance" part of all this? Well, that's where the rating agencies come in. For more on that, check out this post from Bruce Carruthers at Crooked Timber.

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8x8....Can insufficient water intake make you sick? Dan Negoianu and Stanley Goldfarb, writing in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (that's the study of kidney diseases, folks) say we'll never know:

Only large and expensive randomized trials could settle these questions definitively. Given that water cannot be patented, such trials seem unlikely.

How droll. But I'm sure someone is working on this.

Actually, the point of N&G's piece was to knock down — once again — the myth that we should all drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day (the "8x8" myth). Their conclusion: for normal, healthy people, there's really no evidence one way or the other that doing this has any health benefits. It doesn't clear your kidneys of toxins, it doesn't improve organ function, it doesn't help you lose weight, it doesn't prevent headaches, and it doesn't improve your skin tone. On the other hand, it doesn't do any harm, either. If you're thirsty, drink some water. If you aren't, don't bother.

Anyway, I'm sure they're spitting into the wind here. The 8x8 myth gets debunked approximately once a year and no one ever listens. However, I'll add two comments anyway. First, N&G say this about the origin of the 8x8 myth:

In his exceedingly thorough review of this subject, [Heinz] Valtin reached the following conclusion: Nobody really knows.

Not true! In fact, Valtin (here) found a pretty likely source for it, which I summarized like this a few years ago: "The whole eight-glasses-a-day thing came from some prehistoric government study based on God-knows-what that's been handed down through the generations like the Dead Sea scrolls, and even at that everyone misunderstood it in the first place." You may click the link for a more sober assessment.

Second, remember a few weeks ago I noted that a study about antidepressants got wide play in UK daily newspapers but not in the U.S.? Guess what? Same deal this time. N&G got a bit of pickup on TV stations, specialty sites, and a couple of wire services, but as near as I can tell not a single U.S. daily newspaper bothered with it. But in the UK, it got picked up by the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Mirror, and the Scotsman.

What's the deal here? Are British newspapers just gaga for pop medical news, and American newspapers aren't? It sure seems as though Americans are gaga for pop medical news, so why wouldn't our newspapers be too? Very odd.

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By: Kevin Drum

LEADERSHIP....Barack Obama says, "We can't just tell people what they want to hear, we need to tell them what they need to hear." But does Obama actually do that? Alexander Russo isn't so sure after taking a look at a late-90s controversy in Chicago over who should have the authority to fire school principals: local councils or reformist superintendent Paul Vallas?

Obama was uniquely well-placed to take the lead in mediating this battle. He had a relatively strong background in community and education issues. He was friends and pickup-basketball buddies with Arne Duncan, who was then in charge of magnet schools (and has since taken over Vallas' job). Obama also knew Vallas, who liked him. Then, as now, he was considered a politician who could unify people and resolve challenging conflicts.

....For several months, Obama didn't indicate clearly where his sympathies lay. He didn't join with protesters and other legislators who swarmed public events denouncing the Vallas proposal. He didn't talk to the press about the importance of community engagement for schools or the unfairness of diminishing the influence of the 5,500 elected LSC members. Obama kept tabs on the negotiations through his staff, met occasionally with local-control advocates, and, according to those who were involved, sometimes provided ideas and advice in private. But that was about it. Some local advocates weren't even sure whether he would ultimately be on their side or not. And many worried that without someone like Obama to stop it, the Vallas juggernaut would overrun any opposition.

....Only after [support for Vallas had collapsed] did Obama come out publicly in support of local school councils, making a brief speech (PDF) on the Senate floor to codify the final agreement preserving local councils' authority....In being so late to the debate, however, Obama didn't really have to stand up to anyone — not the groups he was affiliated with, not Vallas, not Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

This is only a tidbit, not an indictment. Maybe it just wasn't an issue Obama considered important enough to spend political capital on. Maybe he knew Vallas's effort to wrest control from the local councils was doomed from the start and saw no point in getting involved. Who knows? But it's still an interesting tidbit.

Kevin Drum 2:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (100)

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By: Kevin Drum

MUKASEY AND FISA....A couple of weeks ago Attorney General Michael Mukasey told reporters that he was taken aback by how much he'd learned about terrorist activity since taking office. "It's surprising how varied [the threat] is, how many directions it comes from, how geographically spread out it is," he said.

A week later he got a little more specific, as reported by Josh Gerstein of the New York Sun:

Officials "shouldn't need a warrant when somebody with a phone in Iraq picks up a phone and calls somebody in the United States because that's the call that we may really want to know about. And before 9/11, that's the call that we didn't know about," Mr. Mukasey said yesterday as he took questions from the audience following a speech to a public affairs forum, the Commonwealth Club.

"We knew that there has been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn't know precisely where it went."...."We've got three thousand people who went to work that day and didn't come home to show for that," he said, struggling to maintain his composure.

Glenn Greenwald points out that Mukasey is being plainly misleading here. FISA has always allowed eavesdropping of foreign terrorist suspects, even if they make a call into the U.S. What's more, NSA is allowed to eavesdrop on any source for 72 hours while they're working on getting a warrant approved — and in a case like this, a warrant would certainly have been speedily issued. So it's unlikely in the extreme that FISA was an impediment to our anti-terrorist efforts in this case.

But perhaps even more interesting is whether the incident described by Mukasey ever even took place:

For obvious reasons, the Attorney General's FISA falsehoods themselves are extremely newsworthy, but it is the story he told about the pre-9/11-planning call from Afghanistan itself that is truly new, and truly extraordinary.

Critically, the 9/11 Commission Report — intended to be a comprehensive account of all relevant pre-9/11 activities — makes no mention whatsoever of the episode Mukasey described. What has been long publicly reported in great detail are multiple calls that were made between a global communications hub in Yemen and the U.S. — calls which the NSA did intercept without warrants (because, contrary to Mukasey's lie, FISA does not and never did require a warrant for eavesdropping on foreign targets) but which, for some unknown reason, the NSA failed to share with the FBI and other agencies. But the critical pre-9/11 episode Mukasey described last week is nowhere to be found in the 9/11 Report or anywhere else. It just does not exist.

In an update, Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission Executive Director, seems to confirm that the commission never heard about any such call. So did it actually happen?

To be honest, it's not 100% clear to me from the wording of Mukasey's answer whether he's talking about a specific incident or whether he was making up an example on the fly of the kind of call that he says we missed before 9/11. In other words, was he lying in general, or was he lying in particular? Or was he talking about something other than a specific phone tap — like, say, the ability to data mine every call from Afghanistan to the U.S.? Perhaps some enterprising reporter with access to the Attorney General will ask him.

Kevin Drum 1:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

AGAINST THE MACHINE....Atrios and Ari Melber remind me today that I've actually read Lee Siegel's new anti-web vent, Against the Machine. Why? Because I was going to review it for the magazine. When I was done, though, I talked it over with our books editor and decided not to bother. Sometimes it's fun to write a nasty review of a bad book, but in this case it would have just been a chore. It was too lightweight to be worth spending time on, and we had plenty of better books to devote our pages to.

However, I had already scribbled down a few notes that I would have used if I had written a review, so why not share them with you? You'll notice that they're disjointed, tedious, sometimes opaque, and occasionally repetitive, but it turns out that's actually appropriate for the subject material. So here they are: my first impressions, unchanged from the day I jotted them down.


Against the Machine
By Lee Siegel

Book is a set of irritable mental gestures. Irked at (a) vulgarity, (b) criticism in the hands of non-experts, (c) lack of true art on the net, (d) overcommercialization, (e) popularity as the judge of everything.

Shoddy research: just a bunch of cherry picking of strawmen. Exactly the kind of thing he deplores on the net.

Seems like a guy who only really discovered the internet a few years ago and came away appalled. Doesn't realize that his critiques are common ones.

Has some occasional sharp insights, but doesn't follow up on them.

History: "The Origins of Blogfascism," sprezzatura, round mockery. So he wrote a book. As revenge?

Mostly takes on the most extreme of the net triumphalists. A worthy endeavor, perhaps, but hardly a unique one. And he truly doesn't seem to realize that he's responding only to the extremists.

Is convinced that he got suspended from TNR because editors are cowed by the blogosphere. Thinks everyone is cowed by the blogosphere. But sock puppeteers have gotten worse than he got in the past.

The book is assertion, not argument, just like the worst of the blogosphere.

Like a long Andy Rooney segment, except not as coherent.

In the end, the book is boring, just a bland repetition of old arguments. Siegel seems to think he's the first guy to discover these critiques of the internet. Actually, they've been the subject of endless argumentation, but he's too ignorant of the culture he's critiquing to know that.

Self absorbed. Example: beginning of book, where he's convinced that after his suspension, suddenly everyone was talking about the internet, and then after a few weeks it stopped. Sheesh.

He's just arguing with voices in his head, not with actual defenders of the internet. His "conversation" about wikipedia is ridiculous, and he never wrestles with the real value of wikipedia, or with the downsides of traditional reference sources.

Bland regurgitation of stale anti-internet talking points that he doesn't seem to realize have been part of the critical conversation for years and years.

Overall: the book is very much like the worst of the blogosphere. Ironically.

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Kevin Drum

JIMMY AND BARACK....Ben Smith reports the following from Jimmy Carter:

Don't forget that Obama won in my state of Georgia. My town, which is home to 625 people, is for Obama, my children and their spouses are pro-Obama. My grandchildren are also pro-Obama. As a superdelegate, I would not disclose who I am rooting for but I leave you to make that guess.

Very cute. But I don't get it. Why, "as a superdelegate," would he not disclose who he favors in the primary?

Kevin Drum 11:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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QUESTIONS....Q: What happens if a buyer who can't make his loan payments decides to just walk away from the house? A: The bank takes title and tries to sell the house, either now or later, when the market improves.

Q: What if the bank doesn't want it either? A: Good question.

Kevin Drum 11:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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BASRA POSTMORTEM....The New York Times reports on why Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's offensive in Basra stumbled so badly:

Interviews with a wide range of American and military officials...suggest that Mr. Maliki overestimated his military's abilities and underestimated the scale of the resistance. The Iraqi prime minister also displayed an impulsive leadership style that did not give his forces or that of his most powerful allies, the American and British military, time to prepare.

"He went in with a stick and he poked a hornet's nest, and the resistance he got was a little bit more than he bargained for," said one official in the multinational force in Baghdad who requested anonymity. "They went in with 70 percent of a plan. Sometimes that's enough. This time it wasn't."

That sounds....familiar, doesn't it? Seems like the leadership team of some other country did pretty much the same thing in Iraq a few years back. It's no wonder Bush is such a fan of Maliki: he sounds like a chip off the old block.

But then there's this, describing what happened shortly after the offensive began:

In Baghdad, [Ambassador Ryan] Crocker lobbied senior officials in the Iraqi government, who complained that they had been excluded from Mr. Maliki's decision-making on Basra, to back the prime minister's effort there.

"I stressed the point that this was a moment of national crisis, and they had to think nationally," Mr. Crocker said. "Because nobody should think that failure in Basra is going to benefit any element of the Iraqi community. The response was good. I have not found any element of the Iraqi government that will admit to being consulted."

Is this a typo? Or am I missing something? What does Crocker mean when he says the "response was good" but no one would "admit to be being consulted"? In what way is this a good response?

Kevin Drum 1:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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April 2, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTES OF THE DAY....Quote #1 comes from Phillippe Sands, in a Vanity Fair interview with Doug Feith about his role in ensuring that the Geneva Conventions wouldn't apply at Guantanamo Bay:

"This year I was really a player," Feith said, thinking back on 2002 and relishing the memory. I asked him whether, in the end, he was at all concerned that the Geneva decision might have diminished America's moral authority. He was not. "The problem with moral authority," he said, was "people who should know better, like yourself, siding with the assholes, to put it crudely."

The full article is called "The Green Light," and it's about the Bush administration's top-down attempt to authorize the use of torture against enemy combatants while making it look like it came from the bottom up. Well worth reading.

Quote #2 comes from Joe Klein, responding to a piece of Pollyanna shilling about the Battle of Basra from war enthusiast Fred Kagan in the Weekly Standard:

On the day that John Yoo's remarkable torture memo is released, this foolishness is a reminder that none of these people — none of the vicious, mendacious, naive, simplistic, unapologetic, neo-colonialist ideologues who promulgated this disaster — should have even the vaguest claim on the time or tolerance of fair-minded people. Fred Kagan's certainty is an obscenity, his claim to expertise a farce.

C'mon, Joe, tell us what you really think.

Kevin Drum 6:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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BETTER TEACHERS, BETTER SCHOOLS....EPI directs our attention today to a recent McKinsey study that examines high performing school systems from around the world and comes to the conclusion that the key ingredient in their success is high quality teachers. And how do you get high quality teachers?

School systems, from Seoul to Chicago, from London to New Zealand, and from Helsinki to Singapore, show that making teaching the preferred career choice depends less on high salaries or 'culture' than it does on a small set of simple but critical policy choices: developing strong processes for selecting and training teachers, paying good starting compensation, and carefully managing the status of the teaching profession.

Their suggestion, then, is that it's not high pay per se that matters as much as it is high starting pay. Gotta nab the bright kids straight out of college before they settle into product management jobs at Lever Brothers. And on that score, we're laggards. Instead of paying starting teachers 95-100% of our per capita GDP, we only pay them 81%. To hit the 100% mark, we'd have to increase average starting pay for teachers from its current $35,000 to around $44,000. At a rough guess, that would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $20-30 billion per year.

Plus we need to manage their status better and *cough* pay McKinsey *cough* to develop strong processes for selecting and training them. No idea what that would cost or what it would take. But food for thought, in any case.

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By: Kevin Drum

MICHIGAN AND FLORIDA....I have resolutely avoided blogging about how, why, and whether the Democratic Party should or should not seat delegations from Michigan and Florida, which were decertified last year for breaking party rules about how early they could hold their primaries. But this, from BTD, strikes me as odd:

Let me say this, that if Obama and the Democratic Party force themselves to exclude Florida and Michigan from the Democratic Convention [...] kiss Florida and Michigan goodbye for November. Chalk up 44 electoral votes for John McCain right now.

I've heard this before, and obviously it's central to the notion that we have to do something about Michigan and Florida. But is it really true? Obviously Republicans and independents don't really care about internal Dem feuding, so it's only Democrats who are affected by this. But is there really a sizable pool of Democrats in either state who are both (a) so committed to the party that they care about stuff like this and (b) so uncommitted to the party that they're willing to either stay home or vote for John McCain in November? Or is the argument that activists will be so pissed off that they'll refuse to man phone banks and knock on doors, thus scuttling Clinton/Obama's ground game? I'm not sure I get the logic here.

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By: Kevin Drum

JUST ANOTHER POLICY WONK....Lisa DePaulo of GQ interviews Karl Rove:

What's the biggest misconception about your role in the Bush White House?
That it was all about politics.

If that's the misconception, what's the overlooked truth?
Look, I'm a policy geek. What I've most enjoyed about my job was the substantive policy discussions. Being able to dig in deeply and, you know, learn about something, ask questions, listen to smart people, and form a judgment about something that was from a policy perspective.

Hoo boy. Anybody buying that? No? Then there's this:

I get the sense you respect Hillary more than you respect Obama.
Off the record?

Please don't go off the record.
Off the record... [Yeah, it's good. Sorry.]

Damn! Now say that on the record.
No. Nope. Nope. Nope.

You may now let your imaginations run wild.

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MUTINY IN THE RANKS?....Juan Cole passes along a report from al-Zaman saying that 10,000 Badr Corps militiamen have been inducted into the Iraqi security forces:

The induction of Badr Corps fighters (the paramilitary of ISCI) and those of the Da'wa Party into security positions came in the wake of the firing of thousands of officers and troops who had refused to obey orders to fire on the Mahdi Army militiamen in Baghdad and the southern provinces. They were accused of mutiny.

If al-Zaman's reporting is correct, the scale of the mutiny is breathtaking, and helps explain why government troops did so poorly against the Sadrists — the hearts of the thousands of them were simply not with the fight.

According to an earlier (English language) article in al-Zaman, "Thousands of police officers were reported to have refused fighting the militiamen and at least two army regiments joined them with their weapons in Baghdad." I haven't seen any confirmation of this in the American or British press, so take it as provisional for now. But if it's true, then the Battle of Basra went even worse for the government forces than we thought.

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GUNS ON THE JOB....A delivery guy who shot an armed robber has been suspended by Pizza Hut because company policy doesn't allow employees to carry guns on the job. Glenn Reynolds is outraged:

Good thing he didn't listen or he might be being carried by six instead of subjected to mealy-mouthed HR flackery from one.

I guess this is the aspect of the gun rights crowd that perplexes me the most. It's easy to understand their view of the Second Amendment (a view that I partly share), and it's easy to understand, in general, their view that citizens should be free to own guns if they want to. But this Wild West mentality is much harder to fathom. Do they really think that, for example, pizza delivery guys should routinely wear sidearms and engage in gun battles with crooks, and that employers should (apparently) have no right to prevent it? Frankly, given the average age and disposition of pizza delivery guys, I'd just as soon not have a city full of sidearmed pizza deliverers, and Pizza Hut would probably just as soon not get sued when one of these guys ends up shooting someone who stiffed him on the bill or got into an argument over whether he ordered anchovies on his pie. What's more, Pizza Hut is in the business of making money, and I imagine that most of their customers would prefer not to deal with a company that sends armed young men to their door. Being responsive to all these issues is just sensible corporate and public policy.

My employer can restrict my speech on the job, can fire me without due process, and is not required to cater to my every religious belief. Likewise, they can also have rules preventing employees from carrying arms at work — and most of them do. The occasional angry postal worker to the contrary, workplaces would almost certainly be more dangerous on average if there were lots of loaded guns around, and surely employers have every right to make that assessment. Right?

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JOHN McCAIN'S FAMILY....Ed Kilgore tries to make sense of John McCain's "biography tour" highlighting his ancestors and their military service:

It's tempting to speculate that by design or accident, McCain's self-description is an analogy for his latest political transformation from the "maverick" who flirted (or at a minimum, whose staff flirted) with becoming John Kerry's running-mate in 2004 to today's reinvented conservative. He's rebelled against his heritage, but now, in the crucible of this campaign, McCain is falling back on the fundamentals of family, faith, party, ideology, and yes, maybe even a hereditary strain of military jingoism, and is determined, as prodigals often are, to live up to the heritage to a fault. This must be immensely reassuring to the conservatives who have for so long mistrusted him. And it's an appeal that is also seductive for the many Americans who constantly struggle to reconcile libertarian impulses with the tug of traditions, even bad traditions.

No argument there. This kind of approach might or might not have benefited John Kerry, but John McCain's base is likely to eat it up. On the other hand, I think Matt Yglesias goes too far here:

What I'll say on behalf of this strategy is that it's the best way I can think of to try to take advantage of older people's potential discomfort with the idea of a woman or a black man in the White House that doesn't involve exploiting racism or sexism in a discreditable way. McCain's putting together an identity politics counter-narrative steeped in nostalgia; it didn't work against a white southerner running on a very cautious agenda, but 2008 is going to see the Democrats nominating an unorthodox candidate running on a more liberal agenda.

There's no way to know what's deep inside the man's heart, or the hearts of his followers, but really, there's pretty much no identity McCain could project that wouldn't automatically also project the fact that he's white and male. There's no way around that, and when Kerry ran on much the same warrior-hero image as McCain nobody complained that he was engaging in identity politics that appealed to latent sexism and racism.

Needless to say, if McCain really does do something that seems to appeal to "discomfort with the idea of a woman or a black man in the White House," then we should take him to task for it. But, really, he hasn't, and it's counterproductive for liberals to give the appearance that we're forever on the lookout for ways to find subtle signs of racism or sexism under every rock. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. McCain is in love with war and the military, and that's that.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE TORTURE MEMO....The infamous John Yoo torture memo has finally been released, and it's pretty remarkable. (Part 1; Part 2.) Basically, it says that criminal law doesn't prohibit torture because it doesn't apply to the military. Treaties don't prohibit torture because they only apply to uniformed enemy soldiers. Ditto for the War Crimes Act. And federal statutes prohibiting torture don't prohibit torture because they don't apply to conduct on military bases.

We already pretty much knew that this was what the memo said. But Yoo doesn't stop there. Not only do none of these things apply, but there's no way to make them apply even if we wanted to:

Any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogation of enemy combatants would violate the Constitution's sole vesting of the Commander-in-Chief authority in the President....Congress can no more interfere with the President's conduct of the interrogation of enemy combatants than it can dictate strategic or tactical decisions on the battlefield.

And the Convention Against Torture? If the president orders someone to be tortured, that automatically suspends CAT:

Any presidential decision to order interrogations methods that are inconsistent with CAT would amount to a suspension or termination of those treaty provisions.

And this:

If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.

So that's that. Basically, the president can authorize any action at all as commander-in-chief in wartime. Congress can't bind him, treaties can't bind him, and the courts can't bind him. The scope of power the memos suggest is, almost literally, absolute. And since this is a war without end, the grant of power is also without end.

As we all know, this memo was eventually rescinded. So in a sense it's moot. But Marty Lederman asks a good question: now that we know what was in the memo, what justification was there for classifying it in the first place? It wouldn't have been moot in 2003, and there was nothing in it that compromised national security either then or now. The only thing it compromised was the president's desire not to have to defend his own policies — policies that led directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, among others.

Kevin Drum 2:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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April 1, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

URL UPDATE....The gang at Newshoggers has moved to their own domain. Their new address is:

http://www.newshoggers.com

They're always worth checking out, but they're especially worth checking out when things get hot and heavy in Iraq — like, say, right now. Lots of good stuff from Cernig, Fester, and the rest of the crew these days.

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STAND UP/STAND DOWN UPDATE....The British defense secretary said today that their planned troop drawdown in Basra has been put on hold. No surprise there. But this was a little more interesting:

The defense secretary, Desmond Browne, also used his statement in the House of Commons to acknowledge that British military involvement in last week's fighting in Basra was more extensive than previously disclosed. At one point, he said, British tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and ground troops were deployed to help extract Iraqi government troops from a firefight with Shiite militiamen in the city.

....Mr. Browne said the use of British ground troops in the fighting was ordered "in extremis," suggesting that the deployment of forces from the British base at Basra was a last-ditch measure to save Iraqi troops.

I read one or two reports over the weekend suggesting that the Sadrists in Basra were running low on ammunition and food, and that's why Muqtada al-Sadr agreed to a cease fire. And who knows? That might be true. But Browne sure makes it sound as if the government forces, despite better supply lines, heavier equipment, and help from British forces, were in even more dire straits. The 14th division of the Iraqi army, which led the fight in Basra, was supposed to be one of their best — and also one of the most loyal to Prime Minister Maliki — and yet they took heavy casualties, had to be bailed out of firefights, and according to Browne, showed "fragility" under fire. (Nice euphemism, that.) If that's how the 14th performed, what does that say about the rest of the Iraqi army?

Nothing good, unfortunately. If we're not going to stand down until the Iraqi army stands up, it looks like we've got a helluva long wait ahead of us.

Kevin Drum 9:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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HOT DATING CITIES....This is a pretty interesting map. It shows which American cities have a surplus of single men (blue) and which ones have a surplus of single women (red). What's interesting is the distribution: virtually every city west of the Rockies has a heavy surplus of single men, while most cities east of the Mississippi have a surplus of single women.

The map comes from Richard Florida, who explains the west coast surplus of men this way:

Each of these regions has grown substantially over the past two or three decades, offering jobs in everything from high tech to construction and services. As numerous studies of migration show, men — especially those in regions with declining economies — are initially more likely to move long distances for economic opportunity, while women are more likely to stay closer to home and family.

Uh huh. Consider me unconvinced. On the other hand, no persuasive explanation leaps to my mind either, so I guess I shouldn't complain. Anyone want to take a whack at this?

Via Patrick Appel.

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MAYBE KANSAS IS ALL RIGHT AFTER ALL....Dani Rodrik reproduces a chart from Larry Bartels today that is, indeed, striking: it shows that economic growth is better for every income class — both rich and poor — under Democrats than it is under Republicans. The affluent, as you'd expect, do way better than the poor under Republican presidents, but even at that they don't do quite as well as they do under Democrats:

Bartels shows in his book that this difference is not a statistical artifact or a fluke. It is not the result of Democrats coming to power during better economic times, or of Republicans reining in the unsustainable excesses of Democratic administrations they replace.

....Bartels' findings raise an important puzzle: if Democrats produce better income results for everyone, and particularly for the more numerous lower-income groups, why do they not always win?

You might think the answer is that lots of working class voters vote on social issues rather than pocketbook issues — the What's The Matter With Kansas? theory. And that's probably part of it. But an even more intriguing answer comes in an additional pair of charts from....Larry Bartels. You can see them here. They are absolutely fascinating, and absolutely worth a good, long look. Even if Bartels is wrong, this is really thought provoking stuff.

And while you're at it, here's a followup. It's not quite as fascinating, but it's certainly worth a click.

Kevin Drum 2:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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THE OTHER SHOE....Via Marc Lynch, AFP reports on the latest from Basra and Baghdad:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday ordered his security forces to stop random raids and arrests following a week of military assaults against militants loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"The prime minister has ordered a halt to all kinds of raids and arrests without warrants," said a statement issued by Maliki's office.

He has, however, ordered his security forces to "deal strongly with any groups carrying arms in public."

This was #2 on the list of demands that Sadr issued on Sunday, so it looks as if Maliki has decided to accept Sadr's terms and pack up for now. More from Juan Cole here, who suggests that there's more to come between now and the October elections.

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CUBA....Steve Clemons thinks the Democratic frontrunners are both way too timid on Cuba policy:

I asked [Obama advisor Susan] Rice if Obama — who has been the most progressive among the three standing presidential candidates on US-Cuba policy — would at least go back to the 'status quo' during the Bush administration in 2003. Before Bush tightened up the noose on Cuban-American family travel, remittances, and other exchanges, there was quite a bit of "non-tourist" travel to Cuba — usually for educational and cultural reasons.

Rice's response was "no." She said that those kinds of openings for non-tourist travel would depend on Cuba having "fair and free elections", releasing political prisoners, adherence to human rights conventions, and the like.

....Hillary Clinton is far more restrictive of course and would maintain a Cold War-hugging stance on Cuba at least until Florida votes were counted — but at least her foreign policy adviser, Lee Feinstein, said that he'd be cool with the NY Philharmonic going to Cuba.

Read the whole thing. While even some hardcore conservatives are starting to realize that our Cuba policy is ridiculous and counterproductive, our political class remains in thrall to a small group of dead-end exiles who happen to reside in a swing state with lots of electoral votes. Where's the cigar smoker's lobby when you need them?

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VIETNAM SYNDROME....Matt Yglesias responds to a Max Boot op-ed complaining that if we leave Iraq it will embolden al-Qaeda:

It continues to astound me how focused conservative thinkers are on purely subjective factors as key influences on events in the world. Does it really make sense to think that the main thing we should worry about is that al-Qaeda operatives will get bolder? (for the thousandth time, they seem pretty bold already) The Iraq War is, in an objective sense, squandering American resources and degrading the operational effectiveness of the U.S. security services while also, in an objective sense, bolstering al-Qaeda manpower. This sort of thing — the impact of our policies on the real world — seems much more important to me than the subjective emotional state of hard-core killers.

The answer here, it seems, is Vietnam Syndrome. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most of the country has gotten over Vietnam — as witnessed by wide public support for our subsequent military interventions in Granada, Panama, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and other places. The big exception is conservatives like Boot, who remain convinced to this day that our withdrawal from Vietnam was responsible for virtually every geopolitical problem we've faced since. They are obsessed by the idea that we could have won in Vietnam after all if only we'd had the willpower, and that if we had won there would have been no Cambodia, no oil shock, no hostages in Iran, no Afghanistan, and no al-Qaeda. We'd be masters of the universe.

This is crazy, of course: virtually every Vietnam-related problem we had was caused by the fact that we stayed there too long, not that we got out too soon. But conservatives, and especially neocons like Boot, for whom Vietnam is the defining event of the second half of the 20th century, have never accepted that. They're continually haunted by our "defeat" in Vietnam and have built it up into a fantastical superstructure that explains everything that came afterward.

So what will it take for them to get over this? Beats me. There's probably no hope until an entire generation dies off and gets replaced by conservatives for whom Vietnam is just a word in the history books. And maybe not even then. After all, Boot himself was only six years old when Saigon fell, and he hasn't gotten over it.

Kevin Drum 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

PAULSON'S PLAN....Peter Gosselin reports on the Bush administration's response to the credit crisis:

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.'s blueprint for regulatory reform, officially unveiled Monday, sets the stage for a confrontation with Congress by offering no relief for troubled homeowners and in many instances advocating less, not more, federal supervision of the nation's financial system.

Paulson proposed the broadest restructuring of federal regulatory institutions in 75 years with a call to merge agencies and redraw lines of authority that in some cases go back to the Great Depression. But the plan would put off for years any attempt to create new regulations for the streamlined system to enforce.

As a result, even if the new structure were eventually adopted, it would do little to prevent a repeat of the current crisis or something similar, the Treasury secretary acknowledged.

No surprise there. After all, Paulson created his plan a year ago, well before the current crisis exploded last summer. Far from being a way to rein in banking industry excesses, it was originally a conservative wish list designed to "streamline" the federal bureaucracy and lighten the regulatory burden on Wall Street, which was, um, slowing down the growth of sophisticated new financial instruments that — that, er, were needed to keep the American financial industry in its place as the leader of the world.

As it turned out, the regulatory burden on sophisticated new financial instruments wasn't quite the problem that needed to be solved, but Paulson didn't let that stop him. He just kept his pet proposals in place, slapped a fresh speech together, and called it a "sweeping" new vision. Then he looked surprised when no one was buying it.

Streamlining the regulatory bureaucracy is probably a good idea. There's certainly no need to fetishize the jury-rigged alphabet soup of New Deal agencies that we rely on today. But just for once, would it kill the Bush administration to address an actual problem, instead of merely using it as an excuse to jam some long-wished-for piece of money-con flim-flam through Congress?

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PENTAGON AND YOU....The Washington Post reports on a new GAO study of Pentagon weapons systems:

The Government Accountability Office found that 95 major systems have exceeded their original budgets by a total of $295 billion, bringing their total cost to $1.6 trillion, and are delivered almost two years late on average.

Hopping over to the GAO site itself, I also find this:

GAO found that 63 percent of the programs had changed requirements once system development began, and also experienced significant program cost increases....[R]oughly half the programs that provided GAO data experienced more than a 25 percent increase in the expected lines of software code since starting their respective system development programs.

To be honest, my first reaction to this was, "Hey, that's not as bad as I would have guessed!" Based on my own meager private sector experience, I would have figured that 100% of the programs would change requirements after development began. And given the size and scope of the systems we're talking about, a 26% increase in cost and a 25% increase in lines of code actually seems kind of low to me.

But cynical first impressions aside, the chart on the right tells the real story: DoD sloppiness is getting worse and worse. The Pentagon is bulking up with ever more systems that are ever more complex, and cost overruns and schedule delays are getting bigger and longer. There aren't enough people to oversee all these systems, so the number of outside consultants has increased and oversight has been spread thin. And of course, the worst part is that this growth is not only producing overruns and delays, but it's unnecessary in the first place. The Pentagon has treated 9/11 as a gigantic treasure chest to justify acquisition of lots of shiny new systems designed to fight Russians and Chinese, and an awful lot of them are close to useless for the kind of war we're more likely to fight in the next few decades.

On the bright side, lots of military contractors are making lots of money, and they're building their fancy new systems in lots and lots and lots of different congressional districts. So who's complaining?

Kevin Drum 2:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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