Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 31, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Hank, explaining the tech industry in a nutshell:

"As a matter of fact, the last one was a classic cc:all flame fest over text editors."

If you don't get it, it's probably a clue that you have a life.

Kevin Drum 9:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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TRIGGER HAPPY....This is weird. I missed this nugget buried deep in Seymour Hersh's July piece in the New Yorker when I first read it, but it turns out that our little run-in with those Iranian boats earlier this year sparked some conversation in the White House:

[A] lesson was learned in the incident: The public had supported the idea of retaliation, and was even asking why the U.S. didn't do more. [A former senior intelligence] official said that, a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President's office. "The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington," he said.

The story contains no further details, but apparently that's not because Hersh doesn't know them. ThinkProgress asked Hersh about the Cheney meeting at a recent conference, and he said this:

There was a dozen ideas proffered about how to trigger a war. The one that interested me the most was why don't we build — we in our shipyard — build four or five boats that look like Iranian PT boats. Put Navy seals on them with a lot of arms. And next time one of our boats goes to the Straits of Hormuz, start a shoot-up. Might cost some lives.

And it was rejected because you can't have Americans killing Americans. That's the kind of — that's the level of stuff we're talking about. Provocation. But that was rejected.

Fascinating. So why wasn't that in his story? According to Hersh, it's because his editors didn't think he should write about options that were discussed but subsequently rejected.

You gotta be kidding. The fact that they're even talking about stuff like this is news. If Hersh's editors thought his sourcing was no good, then his piece shouldn't have mentioned the meeting at all. But if the sourcing was good enough to report the meeting in the first place, it was good enough to report what they talked about. What were the New Yorker's editors thinking?

POSTSCRIPT: If this story sounds familiar, that's because it is. In one of David Manning's famous memos describing a prewar meeting between George Bush and Tony Blair, he says that Bush admitted that WMD was unlikely to be found in Iraq and then mused on some possible options for justifying a war anyway:

"The U.S. was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colours," the memo says, attributing the idea to Mr. Bush. "If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach."

In the end, of course, we didn't do this. We just didn't bother with any pretext at all.

Kevin Drum 7:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

YOU AND YOUR DOCTOR....Tyler Cowen says that one of the reasons for rising healthcare costs is that people object to any limits on the amount of care they can get. Matt Yglesias demurs:

While people will naturally always want "all the care they want," people's desire to obtain health care is large part a result of their interaction with the health care system. If I'm feeling ill and want the doctor to prescribe me some antibiotics, but then he says "no no no, you have madeupitis and if you take antibiotics you'll die" then suddenly it seems I don't want the antibiotics anymore. Medical treatment isn't fun, people don't just want treatment for no reason. If you convince them that the treatment isn't useful, they really won't want it.

This is a common response on the left, but I'll confess to some curiosity about it. I happen to agree with Matt, but that's largely because I, personally, labor under a considerable fear and loathing of doctors. (OK, more loathing than fear, actually.) I avoid seeing doctors unless I absolutely have to, I don't like taking medication, and I basically feel that the least possible medical care is the best possible medical care. Put me in a hospital and all I want to do is get out before the staff kills me with a central line infection or a misfilled prescription. (Tell me again: why, exactly, is it that doctors seem to think it's cute that they have unreadable handwriting?)

But that's just me, a relatively healthy middle-aged guy, and the fact that I feel this way isn't an especially good guide to public policy choices for a trillion dollar industry. So would any GPs care to chime in on this? Do patients typically tend to demand boatloads of care they don't really need? Do they insist on taking drugs that won't help them because they saw them on teevee? Do they come back over and over and over until you finally cave in and provide expensive new treatments that are vanishingly unlikely to do any good?

As it happens, there's a fair amount of research to back up my neurosis-based view that patient demand isn't a huge factor in rising healthcare costs. A famous RAND study, for example, suggests that free healthcare has only a modest impact on demand for services, and other research fairly convincingly indicts supply-side issues (more doctors = more healthcare), institutional issues (intensive marketing campaigns from pharmaceutical and device firms), and incentive structures (if you pay doctors for prescribing services, they'll prescribe more services), among others.

Still, demand-side issues aren't trivial, especially for the over-65 crowd, which accounts for the majority of healthcare spending. So what are patients like on average? Are most of them like me and Matt, eager to avoid medical care unless it's absolutely necessary? Or are we outliers? Comments?

Kevin Drum 3:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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CULINARY DELIGHTS....Tomorrow Marian and I are going to the Orange County Fair, and we all know what that means: lots of deep fried food. If Elina Shatkin in the LA Times is to be believed, our best bet is to start off with deep-fried apple fries as an appetizer, move on to deep-fried Spam™ accompanied by deep-fried zucchini for the main course, and then finish off with either deep-fried Snickers or deep-fried Reese's Whips for dessert. Foods to be avoided at all costs include deep-fried White Castle burgers, deep-fried frog legs, and deep-fried Tootsie Rolls.

Anybody have anything to add to this?

Kevin Drum 2:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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CONSPIRACIES....According to a poll done to publicize the new X-Files movie, the #1 conspiracy theory (in Britain, anyway) is the belief that Area 51 exists to investigate aliens. I don't buy their claim that a full 48% of Britons believe this, but whatever. All in good fun etc. etc.

But down at #10, we get this: "The world is run by dinosaur-like reptiles." What the hell kind of conspiracy theory is that? Dick Cheney doesn't look anything like a dinosaur.

UPDATE: And of course there's this too, explaining why the government is so uninterested in investigating UFOs: "Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, the puzzle is explained by the functional imperatives of anthropocentric sovereignty, which cannot decide a UFO exception to anthropocentrism while preserving the ability to make such a decision. The UFO can be 'known' only by not asking what it is." Uh huh.

Kevin Drum 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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JOHN McCAIN'S "PALPABLE PAIN"....From Todd Purdum's profile of John McCain in Vanity Fair today:

But irrepressible candor has always been McCain's irresistible force, and its embers still burn bright. In Sparks, Nevada, this week, when a grouchy older man responded to McCain's support for an immigrant guest-worker program by saying the United States needed to reform its child-labor laws to let young Anglo-Saxon American farm kids learn the value of hard work, McCain stubbornly responded that he still favored the guest-worker initiative.

That's it? McCain disagreed with some crotchety old coot who wants to throw out our child labor laws so that more white kids can work in the fields? And then followed up by — stop the presses! — not flip-flopping on a signature position he's held for years? The bar for "irrepressible candor" sure is getting low these days.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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HALFTIME REPORT...."Joe Klein vs. the Neocons" is nicely summarized here by Todd Gitlin. Click 'n read if you haven't been following this soap opera and want to catch up.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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DOG WHISTLES....Newsday's John Riley, after watching John McCain's latest ad montage linking Barack Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, is perplexed by his choice of celebrities:

Anyone with even a vague sense of pop culture knows that Britney and Paris are yesterday's news. Here's a link to Forbes' Celebrity 100. Paris and Britney don't even make the list any more. Instead, the top 10, in order: Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Angelina Jolie, Beyonce Knowles, David Beckham, Johnny Depp, Jay-Z, The Police, JK Rowling, Brad Pitt.

So, they didn't pick other big celebrities, who were either men, or black, or married. What they picked was two sexually available white women.

But it must have been a coincidence, because we know John McCain wants to run an elevated campaign focusing on the serious issues that America faces.

Meanwhile, Adam Serwer acidly notes the Obama campaign's ritual denunciation of rapper Ludacris for writing some offensive lyrics about John McCain and Hillary Clinton:

I hear that one of the goals of the transition team is plans for a new federal agency that will deal exclusively with issuing apologies on behalf of Barack Obama for anything black people do that offends you.

Indeed. Gonna be a long campaign.

Kevin Drum 11:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (103)

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THE CONSERVATIVE WAR ON CONTRACEPTION....Here's the latest front in the conservative war on contraception: a proposed regulation that would strip federal funding from any healthcare organization that doesn't allow workers to opt out of providing abortion services to patients. This wouldn't have a big impact on actual abortions, of course, since anyone who's pro-life wouldn't work for an abortion clinic in the first place. However, the new regs define abortion so broadly that it covers "any of the various procedures — including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action — that results in the termination of life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation."

In other words, birth-control pills, IUDs, Plan B emergency contraceptives, and God only knows what else. "As soon as you have a definition in one part of federal law," says R. Alta Charo, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "it can become the inspiration for the reinterpretation of other statutes." Which is, I'm sure, the whole point. This is just the initial skirmish.

Kevin Drum 1:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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COSSACKS AND CZARS....At the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg lays out the McCain campaign strategy and where it comes from:

After spending much of the summer searching for an effective line of attack against Senator Barack Obama, Senator John McCain is beginning a newly aggressive campaign to define Mr. Obama as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency.

....Mr. McCain's campaign is now under the leadership of members of President Bush's re-election campaign, including Steve Schmidt, the czar of the Bush war room that relentlessly painted his opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, as effete, elite, and equivocal through a daily blitz of sound bites and Web videos that were carefully coordinated with Mr. Bush's television advertisements.

The run of attacks against Mr. Obama over the last couple of weeks have been strikingly reminiscent of that drive.

That's pretty clear. And the cossacks work for the czar, right? Not quite:

As Election Day nears, McCain's campaign is adopting the aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of Karl Rove, the GOP operative who engineered victories for President Bush....But the sharp-edged approach is being orchestrated for an unpredictable candidate who often chafes at delivering the campaign's message of the day. It is that freewheeling style that has made him popular with voters and cemented his reputation for candor and straight talk.

That's Juliet Eilperin and Robert Barnes of the Washington Post, who evidently can't abide the thought that McCain himself is responsible for his campaign's "sharp-edged" approach. Apparently he's just a straight talking guy who woke up one morning and found himself mysteriously under the sway of a vile cabal of political hit men and unable to do anything about it.

Enough's enough. McCain hired Steve Schmidt, he approves the strategy, and he signs off on the ads. If his campaign is mired in sleaze, it's not happening despite McCain, it's happening because of McCain. Stop making excuses for him.

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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July 30, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MEME WATCH....Rich Lowry's "shrewd friend" — a recurring character at The Corner — emails today to say that Barack Obama is "showing hubris and contempt for the rest of us in how he considers America fundamentally broken and he's the solution." Roger that. But this isn't the shrewd part of SF's missive. The shrewd part is identifying the vector by which this folktale will spread:

The question now is whether Dana Milbank is the bird leaving the wire and every other bird in the press follows him or not. If this narrative sets in, Obama might have to move up his VP announcement to change the story.

Even a cynic might think that the media is finally tired of playing the GOP's game on this score — Clinton was shifty, Gore was an exaggerator, Kerry was a flip-flopper — but that's still an open question. If the press decides to run with Steve Schmidt's presumptuous/messiah/I'm-not-saying-he's-unpatriotic-but meme, then Obama could be in real trouble.

At least, that's what people keep telling me. Personally, though, I don't think it's going to work. In fact, the McCain campaign shows signs of being a little too obviously tickled pink with the pickup they're getting on these stories. There's a good chance they're going to carry it a step too far before long and end up on the receiving end of a major backlash. After all, even the media has its limits. I think.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, speaking of the I'm-not-saying-he's-unpatriotic meme, do you notice anything funny about this exchange?

STEPHANOPOULOS: You've also taken some heat this week with your comments saying that Senator Obama would rather lose a war than win a political campaign....

MCCAIN: Well, I'm not questioning his patriotism....

STEPHANOPOULOS: When you say someone would rather lose a war, a candidate, that's questioning his honor, his decency, his character.

MCCAIN: All I'm saying is — and I will repeat — he does not understand. I'm not questioning his patriotism.

The funny thing, of course, is that Stephanopoulos himself never suggested that McCain was questioning Obama's patriotism in the first place.....

UPDATE: It sounds like longtime McCain advisor John Weaver agrees that McCain's campaign is in imminent danger of going overboard.

Kevin Drum 5:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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PROBLEMS WITH POLLING....Taegan Goddard gives us a preview of The Opinion Makers, by David W. Moore:

The author — a former senior editor of the Gallup Poll — says that today's opinion polls misfire due to an intrinsic methodological problem: survey results don't differentiate between "those who express deeply held views and those who have hardly, if at all, thought about an issue."

This is disturbing. Either Moore managed to find a publisher for a book thesis about as obvious as "college students like to drink," or else Moore's thesis actually isn't as bog obvious as I think it is. I'm not sure which is worse.

Or there's a third option: his thesis really is as obvious as I think it is, but everyone keeps pretending not to know it anyway. Which means it's worth a book. Good luck, David!

Kevin Drum 3:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE MATA HARI OF FIREARMS....Isn't "Mary McFate" a great name for a spy? I think so. So it's only fitting that Mary McFate is, indeed, a spy. For the NRA. For the last decade, it turns out, she's been busily infiltrating gun control groups until being outed by a team of reporters at Mother Jones:

Informed of McFate's true identity, her friends and associates in the gun control community expressed shock and anger. "That astounds me," says Barbara Hohlt. Of McFate's ability to maintain her cover, she adds, "She was very, very good. Everybody knew her for years and trusted her." Brian Malte, director of state legislation at the Brady Campaign, says, "Oh my...Of all the people." Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, remarks, "This is totally bizarre." And she adds, "I would find it hardest to believe this about her. She comes across as kind of dense — or she's putting on a good act."

McFate's (now former) colleagues note that she was well-positioned for many years to provide the NRA — or any other gun rights groups — the plans, secrets, and inside gossip of practically the entire gun violence prevention movement. "She had access to all the legislative strategy for every major issue for years," says Rand.

Fascinating, no? The Sierra Club better watch its back.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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PAGING MAUREEN DOWD....I saw this Dana Milbank piece last night but didn't bother commenting because it was late and life is too short. Milbank occasionally does good work, but basically he's ruined himself by his relentless quest to turn himself into the Washington Post's Maureen Dowd, and this piece was right in the Dowdian strike zone: snotty, too clever by half, and self-consciously bursting with adolescent cynical detachment. If Dowd were the only person who wrote this stuff it would be bad enough, but the fact that she's influenced a whole generation of wannabes is what really makes her style so malign.

At any rate, it turns out that Milbank's piece is not only snotty, too clever by half, and self-consciously bursting with adolescent cynical detachment, it's also wrong. Milbank Dowdified his Obama quote because it was the only way to get it to fit his storyline. In a bizarre and karmic way, I guess that's appropriate.

Kevin Drum 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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RUSSIAN GAS....Via Juan Cole, Asia Times reports that Russia, the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, has signed an agreement to buy and market Turkmenistan gas. "Curiously," says M K Bhadrakumar, "the agreements reached in Ashgabat on Friday are unlikely to enable Gazprom to make revenue from reselling Turkmen gas....In other words, plain money-making was not the motivation for Gazprom. The Kremlin has a grand strategy."

That "grand strategy" is, basically, to control as much world gas production as it can, and to form a cartel with other gas producers where it can't. I'm not sure what exactly this means, but at a minimum it kills the American plan to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India; it makes Iranian gas production even more strategic than it already is; and it makes me more perplexed than I already am about T. Boone Pickens' claim that natural gas is the key to U.S. energy independence. Hopefully some energy experts will weigh in soon to tell me whether any of this is stuff I really need to be concerned about.

Kevin Drum 1:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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STATUS-OF-FORCES BACK FROM THE DEAD....The Wall Street Journal reports that a status-of-forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, presumed dead a few weeks ago, is back on the front burner:

The Bush administration's embrace of a flexible timeline for pulling U.S. troops from Iraq has accelerated negotiations between Washington and Baghdad over a long-term security pact, officials from both sides said.

....An actual date for a planned pullout hasn't been hashed out. Iraqis are pushing for a 2010 withdrawal, but a compromise could be a year or two after that, according to people familiar with the talks. The agreement would allow for flexibility in case violence spikes again in Iraq, these people said.

This makes a lot of political sense to me. Nouri al-Maliki's pronouncement last month that talks were at a dead end was always best interpreted more as a negotiating tactic than a final rejection. After all, it's in Maliki's security interest to ensure a continuing American presence but in his electoral interest to make clear that it's not a permanent presence, and a formal agreement is pretty clearly the best way for him to serve both these imperatives at once.

Likewise, the Bush administration has every incentive in the world to conclude some kind of agreement with Iraq, even if it implies (artfully, of course) a withdrawal timeline. George Bush knows perfectly well that the odds favor Barack Obama winning the presidency in November, and if inauguration day rolls around with no agreement in hand, Obama is likely to make good on his 16-month timetable. But if Bush manages to conclude an agreement with Maliki that, say, agrees on troop withdrawals starting in late 2009 and concluding in 2011, how likely is Obama to try to renegotiate it?

Not very, I'd say. Political capital that would be worth spending to start a withdrawal where none existed wouldn't be worth spending merely to speed up an already agreed withdrawal by a few months, which in turn means that a signed agreement is Bush's best chance to ensure that troops stay in Iraq at least a year or two longer than they otherwise would. So here we have a case where both parties are genuinely well served by coming to terms before November — and that means they probably will. If I had to guess, I'd say we'll see something by September.

Kevin Drum 1:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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July 29, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

STANDING TALL....Sunday morning, here's the candidate himself talking about Social Security on ABC:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, that means payroll tax increases are on the table, as well?

MCCAIN: There is nothing that's off the table.

Today, after getting beat up by the tax jihadist wing of the GOP, here's the candidate's mouthpiece on Fox:

KELLY: Might the Social Security tax go up? Is that on the table?

BOUNDS: No, Megyn, there is no imaginable circumstance where John McCain would raise payroll taxes. It's absolutely out of the question.

This is just getting embarrassing. Is McCain running for president of the United States or is he trying out for a part in some high-concept wacky political comedy? He needs to make up his mind.

Via ThinkProgress.

Kevin Drum 6:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE....Oooh. Nice little earthquake we just had here in Irvine. Guess I should turn on the TV to find out whether it really was little or not.....

UPDATE: Ah. 5.6 centered on Chino Hills. That's about 20 miles north of me.

UPDATE 2: Just upgraded to 5.8.

UPDATE 3: Now downgraded to 5.4 Make up your minds, seismologists!

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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CAMPAIGN WATCHING....National Review editor Rich Lowry comments on John McCain's ad claiming that Barack Obama refused to visit wounded troops during his visit to Germany:

I buy the basic Obama defense of his decision not to visit Landstuhl. I don't think he was deliberately snubbing wounded troops. So I think the McCain ad is unfair, but it hits on a key vulnerability of Obama — the sense that he's above-it-all and entirely too grand for his own good.

Shorter Lowry: Yeah, he was lying, but that just makes the ad even more awesome!

OK, now I'm being unfair. But considering how scurrilous this accusation was, couldn't Lowry muster up just a slightly stronger condemnation than "but it makes a good point anyway"?

Kevin Drum 2:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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ZOMG!!!....VOTER FRAUD!!!....A nonprofit organization that employs people to register voters in Virginia noticed that three of its workers in Hampton Roads appeared to be faking names in order to make their daily quota, so they turned them in to authorities. And what was the response of the chairman of Virginia's Republican Party? He warned people not to register to vote:

"Identity theft is widespread problem in Virginia," [Jeff] Frederick said. "Today, I am encouraging voters who have filed out any of these voter registration forms to immediately contact their registrars, and Virginians should exercise caution when approached by a stranger who asks them for their information."

And why should a minor incident like this make Virginians afraid of widespread identity theft? Say it along with me: It's because this is, of course, not an isolated incident:

"We don't know who's doing all of this, but I'm sure that it's more than one group," Frederick said in a telephone news conference. "There's certainly — definitely, I think — a more widespread problem than just an isolated incident."

Definitely a widespread problem. Of course it is. And the name of this widespread problem is.....Barack Obama.

Via Swampland.

Kevin Drum 2:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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TED STEVENS....Alaska senator Ted Stevens has been indicted on corruption charges:

From May 1999 to August 2007, prosecutors said Stevens concealed "his continuing receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of things of value from a private corporation." The indictment released Tuesday said the items included: home improvements to his vacation home in Alaska, including a new first floor, garage, wraparound deck, plumbing, electrical wiring; as well as car exchanges, a Viking gas grill, furniture and tools.

But there's more to Uncle Ted than just corruption. For more on the GOP's longest-serving senator, take a look back at "State of Dependency," a profile of Stevens and Alaska by Charles Homans that ran in our November 2007 issue. Apparently Republicans were right all along about the morally debilitating effects of relying for decades on a nonstop stream of federal welfare handouts.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... From Steve Pearce, a Republican House member from New Mexico who is running for the Senate:

"At a time when we're facing $4 gasoline, I think that you need people who've been in the energy industry to tell us what to do."

Uh huh. And when it comes to diet advice, I turn to the Colonel. His advice is always finger lickin' good.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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HARNESSING THE POWER OF THE NET....I missed this yesterday, but Dan Drezner went directly to the source and discovered how Justice Department officials vetted potential DOJ employees using the awesome power of the Nexis news database. Here's the search string they used:

[first name of a candidate] and pre/2 [last name of a candidate] w/7 bush or gore or republican! or democrat! or charg! or accus! or criticiz! or blam! or defend! or iran contra or clinton or spotted owl or florida recount or sex! or controvers! or racis! or fraud! or investigat! or bankrupt! or layoff! or downsiz! or PNTR or NAFTA or outsourc! or indict! or enron or kerry or iraq or wmd! or arrest! or intox! or fired or sex! or racis! or intox! or slur! or arrest! or fired or controvers! or abortion! or gay! or homosexual! or gun! or firearm!

Mayberry Machiavellis indeed. Click the link to read their fevered denials and eventual confessions.

UPDATE: The LA Times has more:

In the second of a series of reports on the politically charged tenure of former Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, the department's inspector general found that two former Justice aides used sexual orientation as a litmus test in deciding whom they would hire or fire.

The report describes an alleged "sexual relationship" between a career prosecutor and a U.S. attorney, who were not named. Margaret M. Chiara, the former U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., said in an interview with The Times that she now believed she was fired because of the erroneous belief that she was having a relationship with career prosecutor Leslie Hagen.

"I could not begin to understand how I found myself sharing the misfortune of my former colleagues," Chiara said of the eight other U.S. attorneys who were fired. "Now I understand."

The Chiara case was always one of the oddest of the U.S. Attorney firings, and apparently now we know why. A followup report on all nine USA firings is expected shortly.

Kevin Drum 10:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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KIRKUK....The New York Times account of the bombing in Kirkuk on Monday is devastating:

Just after 11 a.m., a suicide bomber blew herself up, killing at least 17 demonstrators and wounding 47 others, according to Iraqi security officials.

No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni Arab extremists. Nonetheless, many in the crowd blamed Turkmen extremists for the attack, and within minutes a mob of enraged Kurds began attacking Turkmen political offices and setting their buildings ablaze.

....One element fueling the Kurds' rampage was the widespread belief that Turkmens had fired on Kurdish demonstrators dashing away from the bomb blast.

....Farouk Abdullah, a senior Turkmen politician, said that offices of every Turkmen party had been attacked and that Kurdish rioters had destroyed a number of other Turkmen buildings. "We don't know why they attacked us," he said. "We did not have anything to do with the explosion."

By the end of the day, the riot and violence by Kurds against Turkmens had become one of the most severe ethnic skirmishes in Kirkuk since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The city has long been considered a tinderbox because of its volatile mix of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs.

The suicide bombing was bad enough on its own. The fact that it immediately led to a Kurdish rampage is worse. Everyone who follows Iraqi politics has been waiting on pins and needles for years for Kirkuk to erupt, and pretty much everyone seems to think that this kind of thing could be all it takes to turn Kirkuk's long-simmering ethnic feuds into all-out war. So far it hasn't, though, and the good news is that the Sunni extremists who were probably responsible for this attack are likely to have a limited supply of female suicide bombers. That may be a thin reed, but at least it's a reed.

Kevin Drum 2:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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July 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN'S PRIORITIES...."Will McCain Abandon Cap and Trade?" asks Matt Yglesias. The short answer, of course, is yes. The slightly longer answer is that I think the question is ill formed. Cap-and-trade is one those enormous, mega-complex, special-interest magnets that's almost impossible to pass no matter how committed you are to it. Getting it through Congress will take an enormous amount of political capital, and I wouldn't even bet on Barack Obama making it a high enough priority to push it through.

As for John McCain, it wouldn't even be in his top ten. Technically speaking, then, he might never officially "abandon" it, but practically speaking, there's never been the slightest chance that even his watered-down version of cap-and-trade would ever see the light of day. He just doesn't care enough about it.

Kevin Drum 4:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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MAYBERRY MACHIAVELLIS....Monica Goodling has long since admitted that she used political considerations to hire career lawyers in the Justice Department, and a couple of months ago the Inspector General compiled statistical evidence showing that this was pretty clearly Bush administration policy. So in a way, today's followup report is anticlimactic: it tells us that the Bush DOJ, as we've known for quite a while, was basically run by a bunch of low-rent Boss Tweeds.

Still, anticlimactic or not, its dry recitation of the facts surrounding "Candidate #1" (the first of eight political hit jobs engineered by Goodling) is pretty startling:

He was an experienced terrorism prosecutor and had successfully prosecuted a high-profile terrorism case for which he received the Attorney General's Award for Exceptional Service....Battle stated that Voris told him that the candidate was head and shoulders above the other candidates who had applied for the counterterrorism detail.

Sounds like a great guy. But there was a problem:

The candidate's wife was a prominent local Democrat elected official and vice-chairman of a local Democratic Party. She also ran several Democratic congressional campaigns....Battle, Kelly, and EOUSA Deputy Director Nowacki all told us that Goodling refused to allow the candidate to be detailed to EOUSA solely on the basis of his wife's political party affiliation.

....Because EOUSA had been unable to fill the counterterrorism detail after Goodling vetoed this candidate, a current EOUSA detailee was asked to assume EOUSA's counterterrorism portfolio....He had no counterterrorism experience and had less than the minimum of 5 years of federal criminal prosecution experience required by the EOUSA job announcement. Battle, Nowacki, Kelly, and Voris all said they thought that he was not qualified for the position, since he had no counterterrorism experience. The replacement candidate was a registered Republican who Goodling had interviewed and approved before he was selected for his EOUSA detail.

Your Bush administration at work: When it's politically convenient, the war on terror is vitally important. When it's not, it's not.

Kevin Drum 3:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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DRIVING....Here's the latest from the Department of Transportation: total miles driven in May were down 3.7% from last year, the first significant May decline since they started keeping records in 1983, and even bigger than April's 1.6% drop. What's interesting, though, is that this change isn't as sudden as it sometimes seems: it's actually been building for a couple of years. This chart shows things a little more clearly, and you can see that driving started leveling off as early as 2006 before finally beginning to decline this year.

In one sense this is impressive: 3.7% is a fairly sizable drop. On the other hand, considering that gasoline prices have doubled since 2005, it's also a remarkably restrained response. It'll be interesting to see if these declines are permanent, or if driving volume goes back up as people get used to higher prices.

And in case you're interested, the steepest decline was in Michigan, where driving is down 7.4%. At the other end is North Dakota, the only state to laugh in the face of $4 gas. Their driving was up 0.7% in May.

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TO THE STOCKS!....John McCain is going to prevent oil companies from pocketing the proceeds of his gas tax holiday by publicly shaming them into passing the savings along to consumers? You betcha. I guess he came up with that idea because it's worked so well with other huge industrial corporations in the past.

And while we're on the general subject this morning of economic malpractice, here's a pretty good example: the headline on Jonathan Weisman's budget article in today's Washington Post. The Bush administration's budget accounting has always been an exercise in smoke and mirrors, but that still doesn't justify calling next year's deficit a "record." It's not even close when adjusted for inflation, which is the only reasonable way to do it — as anyone even faintly familiar with budget reporting knows. Reporting the truth is bad enough. There's no need to spice it up.

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LIES, DAMN LIES, AND TAXES....I confess that I'm not quite as bent out of shape as some people about Michael Scherer's article in Time this week that describes Obama's and McCain's tax plans. Yes, Scherer is more nebulous than he needs to be, but at the same time, it really is true that the plans are complicated and hard to nail down, and Scherer writes plainly about their main features: namely that McCain's plan benefits the rich while Obama's benefits the middle class, and that McCain's plan is a bigger deficit buster than Obama's.

That said, did everyone catch Scherer's lede?

"The choice in this election is stark and simple," John McCain said at recent Denver event, repeating a phrase that is a staple of his stump speech. "Senator Obama will raise your taxes. I won't."

Seems clear enough, right? It's an old argument you already know — Republicans cut taxes, Democrats raise them. Except it's not true, at least not in the way that it seems. But don't take my word for it. Here is Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's chief economic policy adviser. "I used to say that Barack Obama raises taxes and John McCain cuts them, and I was convinced," he told me in a phone interview this week. "I stand corrected."

Italics mine. So Holtz-Eakin, who is still trying to keep his reputation from being completely shredded by the campaign, now admits that Obama isn't going to raise taxes. But his boss is still saying the opposite. Anyone want to take bets on whether McCain stops lying about this?

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THE USUAL CYCLE....The New York Times reports that the volume of short-term commercial loans has dropped 3% this year, the largest annual decline since 2001:

Banks struggling to recover from multibillion-dollar losses on real estate are curtailing loans to American businesses, depriving even healthy companies of money for expansion and hiring.

....Drew Greenblatt, president of Marlin Steel Wire Products, figured it would be easy to get a $300,000 bank loan to finance a new robot for his factory in Baltimore....But when Mr. Greenblatt called the local branch of Wachovia — the same bank that had been aggressively marketing loans to him for years — he was distressed by the response. "The exact words were, 'We're saying no to almost everybody,' " Mr. Greenblatt recalled.

....Some suggest that the banks, spooked by enormous losses, have replaced a disastrously indiscriminate willingness to hand out money with an equally arbitrary aversion to lend — even on industries that continue to grow.

"There's been a lot of disruption in the credit market, and a lot of traditional lenders have really tightened up," said Gregory Goldstein, president of Macquarie Equipment Finance, which leases computer gear and other technology to companies. "Before, some of the standards they lent on were weak, but we think they have overshot and gone too far on the other end."

Gotta laugh at that one. Of course banks overshot on the way up and are overshooting on the way down too. That's what always happens. It happened with savings and loans, it happened with South American loans, it happened with dotcoms, it happened with housing, it always happens. Bankers, as near as I can tell, have about as much common sense as the average lemming. The Fed can help, but it can't turn them into a different species. Buckle up.

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HIGHWAY LINGUISTICS....PART 3....I know you've all been transfixed by this weekend's discussion of Southern California's habit of prepending "the" to freeway numbers, haven't you? So here it is: one final post with the long-awaited semi-official explanation for this phenomenon. It's official because it appears in an academic journal, but only semi because I remain a little skeptical anyway. It's below the fold on the off chance that you couldn't care less about all this.

The article is called "The" Freeway in Southern California, by Grant Geyer, and it appeared as a note in the summer 2001 issue of American Speech. His story starts at about the time that LA's original five freeways were being built in the 30s and 40s:

In about 1941, just before the completion of the first of the famous freeways, intercity traffic came into Los Angeles on the north-south axis on U.S. 99, U.S. 101, or California Route 1....Before the freeways were built, locals generally preferred the old, time-honored street or road names instead of numbers in conversation. So for 'U.S. 99' they said San Fernando Road because the highway followed that particular named street, as far as the distant end of "town." Likewise, 'U.S. 101' was Ventura Boulevard and 'Route 1' was Pacific Coast Highway....Route 1 or Route 101 was not used in town.

My mother, who grew up in LA, confirms this. Within "town" (basically LA County) names were used for these routes. Outside of town, they were referred to by number. Onward:

When the federal interstate system grew up, the southern California area got its share of funding and road numbers....However, for the first 20 years of the interstate system, no one used the numerical designations....The interstate routes around Los Angeles were called the Ventura Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the Santa Ana Freeway, the Golden State Freeway, the San Bernardino Freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, the Glendale Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway, the Harbor Freeway, the Riverside Freeway, and the Long Beach Freeway.

....The strange-sounding usage of the plus number, as in the 118, was the natural result of an amazing proliferation of new, minor interstate cutovers, extensions, and bypasses that began about 1975....[It] was even more pronounced when new major Los Angeles interstates sprang up without having any precursors and without being extensions of earlier, nonnumerical freeways. The first one I remember in this category was the 605 Freeway.

This gibes with my memory too. I-605 is officially called the San Gabriel River Freeway, but nobody ever calls it that. It's always been the 605. Geyer goes on to say that other areas, including Northern California, also have names for their highways, "but they evidently weren't emblazoned Bay-wide in the minds and argot of northern drivers and direction-givers."

But southern Californians represent the archetype of the car society; they have needed that article since the dawn of the freeway. Many regions have freeways with the names: the Henry Fords and Dan Ryans come to mind. But Chicagoans don't say the 290. Surely no other part of the country — certainly not San Francisco/Oakland — had such a long history and large quantity of nonnumerical the freeways. When the numbers arrived, the 134 Freeway and the 605 and their many newer siblings just joined people's long, 50-year, tried-and-true list of the designations for highways.

Maybe this is the right explanation, but I'm still a little skeptical. Partly this is because Geyer's "archetype of the car society" conclusion is the kind of pop sociology that I'm automatically suspicious of. Beyond that, though, I've got one serious objection along with a suggestion for further research.

My objection is that this is all pretty ad hoc. Basically, Geyer is saying that other big cities had named highways too, but they just didn't have quite as many as LA, so the never caught on. But if all your highways have names, and that's the original source of the, then why would it matter how many you had? You either get accustomed to referring to them by name or you don't, and if you do, you'd be just as likely as LA to evolve to using the with a numerical designator too. But nobody else did.

More specifically, what about New York City? Like LA, it had plenty of highways before and during the construction of the interstate system, and they all had names: the Long Island Expressway, the Van Wyck, the Belt Parkway, etc. As in LA, those names are still commonly used. But unlike LA, when numerical designators are used, New Yorkers don't prepend a the. Why?

So I'm not entirely convinced by this. However, for anyone with a ProQuest subscription and too much time on their hands, I have a research project that might move the conversation forward a bit. I spoke to my mother this evening, and she initially remembered always referring to, say, U.S. 101 as the 101. (For the section outside of LA, of course.) Upon further reflection, though, she became less sure of this. Now, outside of LA, U.S. 101 has no name, so there's no way to refer to it except as U.S. 101 or highway 101 or the 101. This means that newspaper articles in the 30s and 40s must have referred to it by one of these designations. So which was it? Have Angelenos always referred to it as the 101, or did that practice start only at a specific point in time? If the latter, that might be a clue that Geyer is right about the becoming entrenched only in the 70s.

In any case, that's it. Further suggestions on this vital topic are welcome, but for now that's all we've got. Make of it what you will.

UPDATE: A potentially important new bit of evidence: according to Stentor Danielson, the is common in Arizona too, which suggests this habit might be a southwestern thing, not just an LA thing. As far as I know, Arizona never had a huge migration of Southern Californians, nor do they receive our radio and TV stations. But if this usage popped up anyway, maybe there's more to this than just a purely LA habit?

UPDATE 2: Why didn't New York pick up the "prepended the" habit too? Martin Schneider suggests that it would have been confusing: "in New York, if you say the 1 or the 3, you're probably referring to a subway."

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July 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE DAY AFTER....I've never been a big John McCain fan. Even in the 2001-2004 era, when he was flirting with the left and opposing the most neanderthal elements in his own party, I didn't really warm to him.



To me, he mostly seemed like a standard issue conservative who had discovered a good schtick during the 2000 campaign and was milking it for all it was worth, pandering to a press and pundit corps that, he had learned, routinely goes gaga over politicians who supposedly reject the shibboleths of both parties and simply speak their mind.

I never really bought it, but at the same time, politics is politics. McCain was hardly the first guy to work hard on his public persona, and, ideological disputes aside, he always struck me as a basically decent person. A little too self-righteous for my taste, but decent.

But now I'm watching him in 2008, his desperation for the presidency driving him to conduct a campaign that's carefully but relentlessly testing ever more contemptible depths of squalor in its attacks on Barack Obama ("he made time to go to the gym but cancelled a visit with wounded troops" is just the latest), and I wonder how he's going to feel when it's all over. Not only will he lose the election, but he's going to wake up one morning and realize that he abandoned his dignity in the process. That's obviously something that's important to him, and even for someone who was never much of a fan, it's kind of sad to watch him give it up so readily.

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HIGHWAY LINGUISTICS....PART 2....Just a quick note on the Southern Californian habit of prepending "the" to highway names. We still don't know where this habit originated, but it turns out there's one other area of the continent where this is common: the Toronto/Buffalo region.

Coincidence? Causation? In which direction? I haven't a clue. But if I'd had to pick one other region that might share our fondness for "the 290" or what have you, that would have been pretty far down the list. Get to work, word sleuths!

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THE SCOURGE OF PADDED NONFICTION....The New York Times has yet another installment today in the long running soap opera about the mental decline of our internet-addicted youth. Example: "As teenagers' scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books." Etc.

I don't have any particular dog in this fight, but I will say this. I'm obviously part of the older demographic that loves books, especially long books, and basically believes that you can't really learn anything serious about a subject unless you're willing to read books. So my sympathies are obviously on the side of the worriers.

And yet.....having said that, spending a lot of time on the internet, as I have since 2002, has rubbed my nose in something that hadn't really bothered me before then: namely just how overwritten so many books and magazine articles are. Seymour Hersh? He's great. You could also cut every one of his pieces by at least 50% and lose exactly nothing. And I'm not picking on Hersh. At a guess, I'd say that two-thirds of the magazine pieces I read could be sliced by nearly a third or more without losing much. That's true of a lot of books too.

Obviously there are plenty of distinctions here. In many cases (profiles, for example), added length is used effectively to set a mood, even if it doesn't convey a lot of specific information. Sometimes you enjoy the writing for its own sake. And there are plenty of longish articles (and books) that depend for their power on building up a case bit by bit, example by example. Start slicing this stuff out, and you end up with mush. I'm not arguing for taking a rusty machete to everything in print.

Still, the fact remains that an awful lot of longish nonfiction writing is needlessly overwritten, and this isn't something that struck me quite so forcefully before I started blogging. But now, for better or worse, it has. I'm much more sensitive to — and much less tolerant of — padded writing.

So my point is this: if even I, hailing from an earlier generation, feel this way, I can only imagine how teenagers raised on the internet feel. Sure, part of the story may be that their attention spans have become dangerously short, but another part of the story may be that they aren't willing to slog through multiple pages of irrelevant muck waiting for the author to finally get to the point. It's not either/or.

So: crisper writing, please! One of the upsides of blogging (and the internet in general) is that it allows information to find its natural length: if something only needs a couple of paragraphs, that's what it gets. If it needs 10,000 words, it gets that. But there's no need to pad because "we do long form journalism around here," just as there's no need to slash because you only have space for 40 column inches this week. Worriers take note.

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July 26, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

HIGHWAY LINGUISTICS....Last month, when he was in town, I had dinner with Matt Yglesias, and when we were about done we got to talking about directions back to his hotel (this was a few minutes before I got lost taking him there). He noted that I, like other Californians, refer to freeways using the definite article: "the 5," "the 405," "the 10," etc. Back east, I guess, you don't do this, do you? It's — what? "Highway 5"? Or just no identifier at all, as in "Take 10 west until you fall into the ocean and you're there"?

Or what? The odd thing is that the definite article habit isn't quite universal in California, though in my experience it's pretty close. Highway 99, for example, usually seems to be referred to as "highway 99." Ditto for the famously scenic Highway 1. Other state highways vary.

Anyway, this is apropos of nothing in particular. Just curious. How do you do it in your state? And does anyone happen to know where the linguistic variation comes from?

UPDATE: Just to clear something up, we also frequently refer to freeways by name, just like everyone else: the Santa Monica Freeway, the Garden Grove Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, etc. It's only when we refer to highways by number that we do it differently from the rest of the country.

Also, several commenters tell me that using the definite article is a Southern California thing, not a California thing. I stand corrected.

In any case, apparently it's spreading. It appears to have started in Los Angeles, then spread down to San Diego, and has now moved north as far as San Luis Obispo or maybe even Monterey. San Franciscans, as usual, are aghast at this boorish cultural imperialism. More here and here.

UPDATE 2: So far, no good suggestions about where this habit came from. Lampwick suggests maybe it comes from a Spanish language usage, though that doesn't seem too likely to me. Another common suggestion is that we used to refer to all our freeways by name, and then just kept the "the" when number references became more common. This also doesn't strike me as right since (a) lots of other areas have names for highways but don't use "the" when they refer to them by number, and (b) there are some freeways in Southern California that have never been commonly called by anything other than their number.

So I don't know. If I had to take a guess, I'd say maybe some traffic reporter started the "the" trend years ago and then it took over, just like "sigalert." But that's just a guess. If anyone has a better idea, let us know.

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TOOTSIE ROLLS....In the New York Times today, Charles Blow describes the caricatures of left and right we'll soon be treated to in the upcoming presidential campaign:

The left will be reduced to fist-bumping blacks and intellectual elites with gun aversions and gay agendas. An amoral, tail-tucking lot that coddles criminals, raises taxes and has gone Chicken Little over global warming.

The right will be lambasted as ultra-conservative cretins who want to conflate the Constitution and the Bible, are pro-life before birth and pro-death after trial and blindly follow war-hungry fear-mongers who obsess over "terrorists" like a Tootsie Roll commercial.

"Obsess over terrorists like a Tootsie Roll commercial"? Huh? What hip new cultural reference am I missing here?

UPDATE: Thanks, commenters! Turns out this isn't a hip new cultural reference, it's a hip retro cultural reference — though I'm not so sure about the "hip" part. Anyway, it comes from a 70s Tootsie Roll jingle:

The world looks mighty good to me
Cause Tootsie Rolls are all I see!
Whatever it is I think I see
Becomes a Tootsie Roll to me!

Naturally, YouTube has the video. Glad we got that straightened out.

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THE RETURN OF JOHN BOLTON....Great. Now that lunatic Jack D. Ripper wannabe John Bolton has sworn off appearances in the New York Times, he shows up on my doorstep instead. Thanks a lot, Nick. Shorter Bolton: If Barack Obama gave a speech praising mothers as the glue that holds America together, I'd write a turgid op-ed essay arguing that Obama shows a dangerous inability to grasp that it's really our unique dedication to uncompromising militarism that holds America together. Oh, and what's more, Obama obviously doesn't understand the meaning of the words mother, glue, hold and America. Nyah nyah.

Which just goes to show: it's not just bloggers who can write incoherent screeds while munching Cheetos in their underwear. Guys in suits and ties on our nation's premier op-ed pages can do it too.

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OIL BUBBLE?....Is the recent rise in oil prices a speculative bubble? Via Mark Thoma, economist Jim Hamilton tackles that question here. Shorter Hamilton: if you think it's a bubble, what makes you so sure you know what the price should really be? But read the whole thing for a bit more detail.

UPDATE: Alternate theory: the market is afraid that Obama will win the presidential election and this will send George Bush into a frenzy of military activity. Thus, prices are up.

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July 25, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....I am so glad this week is over. It felt like the Bataan Death March of political campaign imbecility. Schmidt's Sausage Haus! Barack Obama better watch out that he doesn't get too popular! "Surge" means whatever John McCain says it means! Obama would rather lose a war than admit he's wrong! Maliki was just mistranslated!

Ugh. And there's still three months to go. On the bright side, Inkblot and Domino saw Obama being washed by the lovely Berlin sunset during his speech yesterday, and they decided they deserved the same treatment. I'm afraid the visuals team here at Catblogging HQ isn't quite as sophisticated as Obama's team, but we gave it our best shot. Can you tell which one is pretending to be Obama and which one is pretending to be McCain?

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YOO-BYBEE II....Yesterday the ACLU finally got hold of the infamous August 2002 "Yoo-Bybee II" memo, which outlines acceptable interrogation techniques for CIA prisoners held outside the U.S. I figure you probably want to know what's kosher and what's not, so here it is:

Sorry about that. It's all still a secret, I guess, even though Bybee concluded that not one single technique outlined in the memo constituted torture. Why? Because, among other thing, "The objective of these techniques is not to cause severe physical pain."

Read that again: "The objective of these techniques is not to cause severe physical pain." This is about as breathtaking as sophistry can get since, of course, causing severe pain was the whole point. Spencer Ackerman has more here, if you have the stomach for it.

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VIRAL SMEARS....The world obviously moves too fast for me: today, Gregory Stroud emails to tell me that the "TF Wasatch" rumor has been debunked. The what? Who/what is TF Wasatch?

Turns out some officer from Task Force Wasatch in Afghanistan started up a viral email claiming that Barack Obama blew off the troops to hobnob with the brass when he visited a couple of days ago. I had no idea. But Greg has been following the whole thing at his place, and today the Daily News formally debunked it, quoting official Army sources. Apparently there's a Utah Army National Guard intelligence officer in a linguist unit at Bagram Airfield who's in big trouble now.

So: a brand new Obama smear went through the entire cycle of getting started, going viral, and being unequivocally laid to rest before I even heard about it. Welcome to the internet age.

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JOURNALISTIC CLICHE WATCH....My crystal ball at work:

July 18, here: "I will offer this free prediction: Either National Review or the Weekly Standard — or both! — will headline their recap of [Obama's] trip, 'The Innocent Abroad.'"

July 25, headline of David Brooks's column in the New York Times: "Playing Innocent Abroad."

OK, I didn't quite get the source right. But I claim victory anyway.

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GAY DIVORCE....A few days ago I was joking to a friend that now that gay marriage was becoming more widely accepted, the next frontier was gay divorce. Turns out that's no joke if you get married in one state but live in another. Today the LA Times tells the story of Cassandra Ormiston and her longtime partner Margaret Chambers, who were married in Massachusetts in 2004:

After two years of marriage, the 10-year relationship soured, and Chambers filed for divorce. That put the couple into a legal limbo that is becoming increasingly common as same-sex couples married in one state try to divorce in another.

A judge in Family Court, where divorces are handled, asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court for a ruling on whether his court had jurisdiction, given that Rhode Island doesn't recognize gay marriage. The state Supreme Court decided that the women weren't legally married in the eyes of the state and therefore couldn't get divorced.

Chambers then tried filing for divorce in the state's Superior Court, but last month a judge there ruled that the court had no jurisdiction over marriage dissolutions. A Massachusetts divorce isn't an option because only residents who have lived in the state for a year can file there.

"They've given us no choice but to be married forever," said Ormiston. "Their worst nightmare."

And it gets worse. Even if you get divorced in the same state you were married in, it turns out that federal law jumps up to bite you too. Read the rest to get the whole story.

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July 24, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON WATER....The mysterious Froude Reynolds, who "carried pipe in tomato fields, walked along canals, and studied water in California universities in preparation for current employment that makes a pseudonym a reasonable precaution," responds to David Zetland's suggestion that the price of water be determined by market forces here. Bottom line: many blog commenters, even on fine blogs like this one, are misinformed. Things are, in fact, "much less outrageous" than they used to be. I can't quite tell if that's damning with faint praise or not, but click the link if you want some up-to-date water info.

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YET MORE McCAIN....As the sun was setting in Berlin on Barack Obama's big speech, John McCain stepped out from Schmidt's Sausage Haus in Ohio to rebuke his opponent:

I would rather speak at a rally or a political gathering any place outside of the country after I am president of the United States. But that's a judgment that Sen. Obama and the American people will make.

Jeez, could he be any more transparent? Why not just carry a big blinking sign saying "Barack Obama Isn't A True American Patriot"? I mean, I realize we're in the silly season and all, but as Atrios says, this criticism is head scratchingly weird. Non-presidents give speeches outside the country all the time.

And yeah, I realize I've been posting an awful lot about McCain campaign trivia lately. But the guy's really been on a helluva roll the last few days, hasn't he?

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OBAMA AND TERRORISM....The Cornerites are in such an apoplectic frenzy over Barack Obama's Berlin speech that I'm almost afraid of being hit by a barrage of spittle flecked pixels if I head over there again before they've calmed down. In the meantime, though, how about this from Byron York?

It's a small passage from Obama's Berlin speech, but this formulation, common in some circles, grates on some ears, like mine:

The terrorists of September 11th plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil.

Yes, the victims were from all over the globe — places like Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and Manhattan, and Queens, and Staten Island, and New Jersey — all over. And most were Americans, weren't they?

This is crazy. Obama was in Berlin. He was trying to connect with a European crowd. He was trying to convince those Europeans that the fight against terrorism is their fight too. Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that a point that conservatives try to make all the time? What better way to make it?

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TOO AWESOME....Candy Crowley on CNN: Barack Obama was, indeed, awesome in his Berlin speech tonight, but watch out! Americans might decide he was a little too awesome.

Yeesh. They just can't help themselves, can they?

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IMMIGRATION....Via Tyler Cowen, here's a new paper about the effect of immigration on wages of native workers. Nickel version: among workers with no high school degree, wages go down 0.7% in the short run and up 0.3% in the long run. Among all workers, wages go down 0.4% in the short run and up 0.6% in the long run.

In other words, not much effect at all.

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IMPROVING OUR SCHOOLS....Bob Somerby reminds me today to comment on Emily Bazelon's article about school integration in this week's New York Times Magazine. It's basically a review of many decades of research showing that the most important way to improve school performance is to eliminate high concentrations of poverty: other things equal, it turns out that academic achievement for all races shows dramatic gains when the proportion of low-income students in a school falls below 50% or, even better, 40%. This finding, says UCLA education professor Gary Orfield, is "one of the most consistent findings in research on education."

Fine. And much of Bazelon's article is about the efforts of school districts around the country to use various forms of race and class-based integration to keep their schools below the magic 40% barrier. But then, we get the kicker:

Many big cities have a different problem. Simple demographics dictate that they can't really integrate their schools at all, by either race or class. Consider the numbers for Detroit (74 percent low-income students; 91 percent black), Los Angeles (77 percent low-income; 85 percent black and Hispanic), New York City (74 percent; 63 percent), Washington (64 percent; 93 percent), Philadelphia (71 percent; 79 percent), Chicago (74 percent; 88 percent) and Boston (71 percent; 76 percent). In theory, big cities can diversify their schools by class and race by persuading many more middle-class and white parents to choose public school over private school or by combining forces with the well-heeled suburbs that surround them. But short of those developments, big cities are stuck.

There's nothing wrong with writing about the efforts of school districts (most famously, Wake County, NC) to integrate their schools and improve performance. But the elephant in the room is that by far the biggest problem with poverty-stricken schools is in big cities, and in big cities there's simply no way to do this. No amount of busing, magnet schools, charter schools, carrots, sticks, or anything else will reduce the number of low-income students in each school below 40% when the entire school district is 80% low-income.

And yet, we get endless stories about Wake County (I've read at least three or four just in the past couple of years) with virtually no acknowledgment that even if class-based integration works, it's a small-scale solution. Bazelon, to her credit, does mention it, but then immediately drops it to return to the integration story.

I don't know. Maybe it's just too depressing to write about. If the effect of concentrated poverty really is "one of the most consistent findings in research on education," and if there's no plausible way to reduce concentrated poverty in our biggest school districts, then we're stuck. We can play around the edges and make small gains here and there, but in the long run nothing will change. And who wants to write a story like that?

UPDATE: Over at Taking Note, Richard Kahlenberg thinks I'm being too pesimistic:

Urban school district lines are not divinely inspired. They are created by states....And even where school district lines are hard to change, boundaries are not impermeable. An estimated 500,000 students cross school district lines every day to go to school in another district.

....One of the longest standing and most successful urban-suburban transfer programs is in St. Louis, where over the years fully a quarter of the student population has had access to good suburban public schools....Two-way transfer programs can also be highly successful. Hartford, Connecticut's urban-suburban public school choice program prides itself on allowing children to move in both directions. Not only do urban students have a chance to attend high quality suburban schools, there are long waiting lists for white middle class kids to attend urban magnet schools, such Hartford Montessori school.

Point taken. Integration in big cities is a lot harder than in smaller school districts, but it's not impossible to make progress.

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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OBAMA vs. McCAIN....For some reason, there seems to be endless chatter among liberals right now who are worried about how Obama is doing against McCain. Why is the race tightening? Why hasn't there been a bump from Obama's overseas trip? Etc. etc.

Beats me. But the race sure doesn't seem to be tightening to me. Different polls show different things, and different poll averages show different things, but the one I usually use (from RealClear Politics) showed Obama ahead by 4.8 points last week and ahead by.....4.9 points this week. So he's doing fine.

As for the world tour, it's gotten him a ton of coverage during a month that's usually light on people paying attention to politics, and the coverage has mostly been very positive. That's a good thing. It may not have given him an instantaneous bump, but honestly, we should all calm down over stuff like this. Not everything shows up in tracking polls within 24 hours. The trip is good for Obama, it increases his foreign policy cred, and once it's out of the way he'll be pretty well positioned to stay home and bear down on the campaign later this summer.

Long story short, I'm not really very worried. McCain will make progress here and there depending on where he spends money and what the issue of the hour happens to be, but overall he's not making up any ground. My bet is that three months and $300 million from now, Obama's going to pick up several more points in the polls and be ahead of McCain by eight or nine points. It ain't over til it's over, but right now it doesn't look to me like there's really anything much to fret about.


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DRUDGE....From Time's Karen Tumulty, traveling with Barack Obama in the Middle East:

Some of the reporters traveling with Obama were surprised upon landing to discover their editors in something of a frenzy. The reason: Drudge is using terms like "chaos" and "mob scene" to describe Obama's visit early this morning to the Western Wall. But that's not the way the pool saw it. (When I asked pooler Jeff Zeleny of the NYT about the Drudge version, he was puzzled and conferred with the other poolers and emailed me back: "No mob scene. Not even close.")

I know this is a naive question and all that, but jeebus. Are these guys ever going to stop letting Drudge lead them around by their nose rings? What's it going to take?

Kevin Drum 11:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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ON THE GROUND IN IRAQ....Blake Hounshell interviews McClatchy's Baghdad bureau chief, Nancy Youssef, about facts on the ground in Iraq:

FP: There's been a debate in the media about how much credit should be given to "the surge" for what you're seeing now. Barack Obama said it was just one of several factors that helped improve the security situation. Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, didn't even credit the addition of U.S. troops in his recent interview with Der Spiegel. Meanwhile, John McCain gives the surge the lion's share of the credit. Who do you think is right?

NY: When you ask the Iraqis here, they say that the added U.S. forces were a part of it, but what really turned things around was the Sahwa movement [of former insurgents switching sides], Moqtada's ceasefires, and in their minds, Basra. Basra was the first Iraqi-led success story, and it really changed the momentum. So, the Iraqis that we talk to see it as a complex equation with the U.S. troop surge as just one factor. And frankly, the situation on the ground suggests that they're right, because the surge troops have left, and the security situation remains better.

....FP: Do you think that Maliki is overestimating his ability to keep things under control as U.S. forces draw down?

NY: When I was embedded with Iraqi troops in Amarah, in the south, they didn't fire one shot. They made maybe a handful of arrests. They didn't find any real Mahdi Army leaders. They're knocking down open doors, so it's not surprising that things are going well. The Mahdi Army has fled.

What happens when they come back? Can the Iraqi Army take charge? And the truth is right now, nobody knows. But I tell you, having embedded with the Iraqi Army, they are worried about it. They know that the wins in Basra and Sadr City and in Amarah did not happen because they were outfighting the militiamen. It was because Moqtada al-Sadr said "Don't fight," and most of those militiamen fled. What happens when they inevitably come back? How confident can we be that the security gains are sustainable when the Iraqi Army has to face a real fight? And nobody knows the answer.

It's only natural that Iraqis are going to play up the Iraqi factors that helped improve security, just as it's only natural for Americans to play up our contributions. Still, Youssef is pretty clearly saying here that of course Obama is right when he says there are multiple reasons for the reduction in violence in Iraq, including not just the surge, but also the Sunni Awakening and the Mahdi Army ceasefires.

(But — what if you simply redefine the surge to include all these things? Then McCain is right after all that the surge deserves most of the credit. And believe it or not, that appears to be his strategy. "A surge is really a counterinsurgency made up of a number of components," he said on Wednesday. "I'm not sure people understand that 'surge' is part of a counterinsurgency." Things are really getting desperate in McCain land.)

In any case, the Basra thing is interesting too. At the time of the battle, last March, it certainly looked to me as if the Iraqi forces were doing poorly in Basra, and to this day there remain some unexplained oddities about how the fighting concluded and who was calling the shots when it did. Still, even though it required U.S. help, there's no question that in the end the pacification of Basra was a success. That said, if it's true that that success is driving a big chunk of the Iraqi public's newfound confidence, it would sure be interesting to finally know what really happened in Basra. Did Maliki's troops really win? Or did the Mahdi Army simply decide to fade away, as Youssef suggests? Why? Was the ceasefire orchestrated by Iran? Those questions, which were all hanging in the air after the battle was over, seem to have evaporated in the months since. It would be nice to see some fresh reporting on this now that the smoke has cleared and we have nearly half a year of distance from the fog of events.

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July 23, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE EMPTY SUIT MEME....For those of you who don't keep up with the conservative blogosphere, one of the memes they've been trying to push for the past couple of weeks is this: Barack Obama may give a good prepared speech, but his dirty little secret is that he's actually an empty suit who's totally at sea without a teleprompter. Today, for example, Andy McCarthy, channeling John Hinderaker, offers up this snippet from an Obama press conference in Jerusalem:

Just this past week, we passed out of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, which is my committee, a bill to call for divestment from Iran, as a way of ratcheting up the pressure to ensure that they don't obtain a nuclear weapon.

But Obama isn't on the Senate Banking Committee! Busted!

I dunno. Do they really think this tack is going to work? It's true that Obama flubbed that sentence, but that's all it was: a verbal flub. What he meant was that the Banking Committee had recently reported out a bill that included some provisions from a bill he cosponsored in 2007. So he should have said "my provisions," or something like that, not "my committee."

There's a difference between verbal flubs, which every candidate makes plenty of, and gaffes that reveal some kind of serious misunderstanding of the world. When John McCain refers to Czechoslovakia, for example, that's just a verbal flub. When he tries to convince us that the surge was responsible for the Sunni Awakening, that's a serious gaffe. Somebody who really understands the past few years of history in Iraq just wouldn't make a mistake like that.

Obama makes verbal flubs as often as anyone (57 states, "eight or ten years," the banking committee thing), but he almost never makes genuine gaffes. The reason is simple: he's a very sharp, very grounded politician who's exactly the opposite of an empty suit. As M.J. Rosenberg says today, "He's smart. He reads. He knows his sh*t."

I'll be curious to see if this meme manages to ooze its way upward into the mainstream press, but I doubt it. It's just too dumb. I think the wingosphere would be better off sticking to the messiah schtick.

Kevin Drum 8:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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EAST COAST BIAS WATCH....The Wilder Effect? I thought it was the Bradley Effect. LA's guy was first, after all.

POSTSCRIPT: Google backs me up: 3,820 hits for Wilder Effect compared to 44,900 hits for Bradley Effect. Take that, Virginia.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Still, good to know it doesn't exist anymore, regardless of what it's called.

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THE WILLIE LOMAN DEMOGRAPHIC....I suppose this campaign poster for John McCain is mockable on a lot of different levels, but if you want to know what it reminds me of (and you do, don't you?), it's those Successories™ themed motivational posters that have been such an object of sport over the past couple of decades. You know the ones: "Excellence," "Determination," "Leadership," etc. etc. Right? And while the lazy bastards at despair.com probably won't come up with their own jeering take on McCain's poster, that doesn't mean you can't. Just go here and create your own.

Still, let's face it: as my wife keeps reminding me, there's a demographic that loves this stuff. Just like there's a demographic that doesn't appreciate sarcastic young whippersnappers and sympathizes with McCain's difficulty in learning how to use the internet. The problem is that it's a fairly small demographic and they're all going to vote for McCain already. Everyone else just snickers at this stuff.

Kevin Drum 5:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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MORE CAMPAIGN MUCK....Chris Orr suggests that John McCain ought to quit whining about the amount of press coverage Barack Obama is getting:

The truth is that, while the inordinate coverage of Obama hurts McCain in some ways, it also dramatically decreases the costs of his mistakes. What exactly are the stories McCain wishes the press had paid more attention to during the last few weeks? His mathematically irreconcilable economic promises? Adviser Phil Gramm's "nation of whiners" comment and job at subprime abettor (and alleged tax-evasion specialist) UBS AG? Surrogate Carly Fiorina's confusion over McCain's stance on whether insurance plans should cover birth control? McCain's suggestion that he somehow knows what Maliki wants better than Maliki does? The string of gaffes in his presumed area of expertise (Sunni vs. Shia, Somalia vs. Sudan, Czechoslovakia, the "Iraq-Pakistan border," etc.)?

The truth is, when you're running a campaign as weak as McCain's has been, in a political environment as hostile to the GOP as this one, the less attention anyone pays to you the better off you probably are.

True enough, but "better off" only means he loses in November by a little bit rather than a landslide. An even better strategy would be to do something genuinely worthy of press coverage. Accusing Obama of being a poltroon or a genocide flip-flopper probably isn't it, but surely McCain can come up with something that's (a) newsworthy but (b) doesn't irrevocably ruin his reputation for decency at the same time? I suspect that firing Steve Schmidt would be a good place to start, but that's just a guess.

Kevin Drum 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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BUSINESS TRAVEL....In recent decades, the cost of air travel has decreased and so has the service. MattY sees dark forces at work:

But what's missing from this analysis is the executive suite. This is where folks have been able to give their employees a de facto pay cut in terms of subjecting them to cheaper, lower-quality air travel and plow the profits thereby gained into corporate jets and first class tickets. A sweet deal for them, indeed. In other words, business travelers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your missed connections!

I'm totally on board with populist CEO bashing, but I'm pretty sure this isn't right. Compared to, say, 30 years ago, travel is indeed a lot cheaper, but the result isn't increased corporate profits, it's more business travel: the white collar wage slaves of 2008 suffer through way more business trips than their fathers did in 1978. That's a bummer, but it's a slightly different bummer than Matt suggests.

NOTE: No, I don't have any figures to back this up. Life's too short. But if anyone wants to point toward some, comments are open.

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2010 OR BUST....The Washington Post editorial page has been the target of plenty of chin scratching over the past few years from people who wonder just what's going on in Fred Hiatt's shop, but today's effort really outdoes itself. If I hadn't clicked the link and read it for myself, I think I would have figured it was an Onion parody or something.

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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OIL SPECULATION....Yesterday the Senate voted 94-0 to proceed with debate on a bill designed to reduce speculation in the oil futures market. Megan McArdle calls the bill "monstrous," which, admittedly, would be my first guess too for any bill that passes a test vote unanimously. (There's gotta be something wrong with a bill that every single U.S. senator likes.) But what does the bill actually do?

The details are a little murky, but basically it cracks down on the enforcement of "position limits" in oil futures markets. Position limits are widely used on financial exchanges as a way to limit the maximum size of the position that any single dealer can take in a particular financial instrument, usually as a way of reducing risk and smoothing market volatility. However, there are ways to evade position limits, and the Senate bill does several things to tighten things up in the oil market: it places responsibility for setting position limits with the CFTC instead of the exchanges themselves, extends these rules to offshore exchanges, and eliminates a "loophole" that allows some large institutional investors to evade position limits.

Now, the CFTC itself doesn't believe that speculation is the reason for high oil prices. Over at The Oil Drum, Nate Hagens has a summary of a CFTC interim report released this month on the subject, and the chart on the right tells most of the story. The CFTC folks, like most other analysts, believe that the fundamental story is simple: supply is constrained and demand keeps going up. Result: higher prices. Speculation has little or nothing to do with it.

I'm pretty strongly inclined to agree. On the other hand, it's not immediately clear to me that there's really anything wrong with the Senate bill. Position limits are a common feature of commodity markets, and allowing the CFTC to tighten up and enforce position limits on oil contracts probably does little harm. In fact, it might even do some good simply by maintaining public faith in the price discovery function of the market.

Now, I'm willing to be educated on this. Maybe there's more to this bill than I realize. But for now, it seems relatively harmless, if probably also unnecessary. Any trading wizards out there who want to chime in?

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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McCAIN'S CAMPAIGN....Was the troop surge in Iraq responsible for the Sunni Awakening? Of course not: the surge wasn't even a glimmer in George Bush's mind until several months after the Awakening started in Anbar province and was showing strong signs of success.

Yesterday I was complaining about conservatives who try to pretend otherwise, but random pundits are just an annoyance. The Republican candidate for president is another. Here's John McCain talking to Katie Couric on the CBS News:

Colonel MacFarland was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening. I mean, that's just a matter of history.

This isn't a slip of the tongue, it's John McCain deliberately trying to rewrite history for an audience of millions. Luckily for McCain, CBS covered for him by editing out his answer so that they wouldn't have to correct him on the air. Nice guys.

Then, later the same day, McCain let loose with this:

This is a clear choice that the American people have. I had the courage and the judgment to say I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.

Joe Klein says, "I can't remember a more scurrilous statement by a major party candidate," and I guess he'd know.

McCain is pretty obviously doomed this year, and it looks like he's decided that his only slim hope of winning is to wage a brutally negative and misleading campaign and hope for the best. My guess is that this is just a warmup. Yesterday's antics were a taste of much more to come.

Kevin Drum 11:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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BIN LADEN'S SOFT SUPPORT....After the imam leaves and the conversation lingers into the small hours of the morning, what do young Islamic radicals talk about? In "Bin Laden's Soft Support," in the current issue of the Monthly, Kenneth Ballen writes that when he started taking part in the all-night conversations that Indonesians call jagongan, he was startled to learn that, often, the answer was.....exit visas:

After that, whenever we had the chance to speak with young radicals in Indonesia, out of the hearing of their leaders and late at night, we'd always ask: How many of you want to study in America? Invariably, almost everyone said yes, and those who still disdained the Great Satan were eager to study in Canada, Australia, or France instead.

We were intrigued. What if supporters of al-Qaeda in countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia felt the same way as young Indonesians? Was their support for al-Qaeda — and their hatred of America — really as intense as it had first appeared?

Terror Free Tomorrow, our nonprofit polling organization, decided to pursue this question further....Our polls show that the anger Muslims around the world feel towards the United States is not primarily directed at our people or values — even those who say they support bin Laden don't, for the most part, "hate us for our freedoms," as President Bush has claimed. Rather, what drives Islamic public opinion is a pervasive perception that the United States and the West are hostile towards Islam. This perception, right or wrong, is fed by a variety of American actions, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the overarching global war on terror. These actions are seen as profoundly disrespectful and humiliating because they amount to America forcing its will on the Muslim world.

This isn't the whole story, of course, not by many miles. But it's a part of the story, and TFT's polling has produced more than a few intriguing results. Read the rest for more.

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July 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

NOT SO LOST IN TRANSLATION....Did Der Spiegel, in its interview with prime minister Nouri al-Maliki published this weekend, correctly translate his endorsement of Barack Obama's timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq? We now know it did, but CJR reporter Clint Hendler spoke with Spiegel editor Mathias Müller von Blumencron recently and learned just how ridiculous it was for Centcom to try and cast doubt on Maliki's words in the first place:

During the interview, Der Spiegel spoke in English, and after listening to each question repeated in Arabic, and hearing Maliki's responses in Arabic, finally heard its answer in English via Maliki's translator.

....There's something else that journalists calling Der Spiegel would have learned. "We have a policy at Der Spiegel when we do a question and answer session to provide a transcript to our counterparts in case they want to have a minor thing changed," says Müller von Blumencron, who says Zand verified that Maliki's aides received the publication-ready advance copy. They had no response, and presumably no complaints, before its release.

The interview was conducted in English, Maliki's Arabic answers were then translated into English by Maliki's own translator, and the completed transcript was later provided to Maliki for his approval before publication. Hopefully this will be the last word on whether or not Maliki really meant what he said.

UPDATE: Lt. Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a media officer with CENTCOM, emails to say that the military had nothing to do with pressuring the Iraqi government to disown Maliki's statement:

In response to your post on the debate over the Iraqi PM's interview with Der Spiegel, I would like, as a spokesman for CENTCOM, make something clear. There was no attempt by CENTCOM to insert ourselves into the press operations of the Iraqi government over this, and the statement by Iraqi spokesman Dr. Ali al Dabbagh was not, as has been reported, released by, or "through," this office.

The MNF-I press office did, a few hours after Dr. al Dabbagh released his statement in Arabic to Iraqi and pan-Arab media, provide an English translation to Western media. This is a standard practice for MNF-I's press office, as the Iraqi government does not have the same capacity for such translations. But while we assist our Iraqi counterparts in reaching a wider audience, no one at MNF-I — and certainly not CENTCOM — has any influence in the content of their messages.

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DISCRETIONARY SPENDING WATCH....Has domestic discretionary spending really skyrocketed on George Bush's watch? John Cogan and Glenn Hubbard say yes, and they have a chart to prove it — but they measure spending in dollars, not percent of GDP, which is pretty plainly the only proper way to do it. Why? Cogan, a professor in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University, says he simply didn't have time to find the GDP-based figures*, a claim that Ross Douthat finds preposterous. Both Matt Yglesias and Brad DeLong agree, and then pile on with some charts and figures of their own which show pretty clearly just how hard Cogan and Hubbard are pushing the BS envelope here. Not only hasn't domestic discretionary spending skyrocketed under Bush, it's actually gone down.

But it's worth taking a closer look at the numbers to see what really happened. As the chart on the right (stolen from this CRS report) shows, during Bush's first term domestic discretionary spending did go up dramatically. If you add in the Medicare prescription bill it went up even more — and this caused more than a few small-government conservatives at the time to erupt in frustration. But this had a simple explanation: it was a bribe. After 2004, when Bush no longer had to worry about getting reelected, he suddenly decided to put the screws on the public. Compassion was no longer in style.

Basically, this gibes with Larry Bartels' finding that Republicans are way better than Democrats at manipulating economic and fiscal policies for maximum electoral benefit. They may not be very good at actually running the country, but they do know how to keep their eyes on the prize. Caveat emptor.

*Turns out it wasn't Cogan who didn't have time to find the figures. It was Peter Robinson.

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LEFT AND RIGHT COMING TOGETHER....Just to show that I don't always disagree with the Cornerites, I think Mark Krikorian gets this exactly right:

The Wall Street Journal today describes how the firms owning trademarks for Dora the Explorer and other characters popular with children are working night and day to prevent kids from having the characters at their birthday parties. This is one more indication, along with music companies suing their customers, of how absurd intellectual property law has become....It's not my bailiwick, so I don't know how the law should be changed, but for starters "limited Times" should become limited again, and not 120 years, so that work enters the public domain a lot sooner.

I vote for 50 years or during the lifetime of the creator, whichever is longer.

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OBAMA ON THE SURGE....Over at the Corner, Andy McCarthy berates Barack Obama's explanation for the reduction in violence in Iraq ("What you had is a combination of political factors inside of Iraq that then came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops"):

Does Obama think the Sunni Awakening and the Shia militia stand-down are somehow separate developments from the surge and the brilliant performance of American forces? If he really thinks that, it's dumb.

Hmmm. Let's roll the tape:

  • February 2006: Muqtada al-Sadr orders an end to execution-style killings by Mahdi Army death squads.

  • August 2006: Sadr announces a broad ceasefire, which he has maintained ever since.

  • September 2006: The Sunni Awakening begins. Tribal leaders, first in Anbar and later in other provinces, start fighting back against al-Qaeda insurgents.

  • March 2007: The surge begins.

Say what you will about the surge, which does indeed deserve a share of the credit for reducing violence and increasing security in Baghdad. But it pretty obviously wasn't related to either the Shia militia stand-down or the Sunni Awakening, since both those things began before Petraeus took over in Iraq and before the surge was even a gleam in George Bush's eye. American troops played a role in the Sadr ceasefire and (especially) the Awakening, but the surge itself didn't — and without them, the surge would certainly have failed. Obama has it exactly right.

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BAD NEWS....Via Eric Alterman, Pew reports on the changing face of the American newspaper:

It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.

The crossword puzzle has shrunk? Seriously? That saves 'em — what? Two or three square inches?

Anyway, the whole thing is here. Bottom line: coverage of foreign news, national news, business news, and science news is plummeting. Education, crime, sports, and obituaries (!) are up. "In effect, America's newspapers are narrowing their reach and their ambitions and becoming niche reads." I continue to think that this is a more dire development than most of my fellow blog denizens do — though Eric himself is, if anything, even more alarmed at what's happening than me. He also notes acidly that in the current frenzy of cost cutting at America's newspapers, "Virtually the only expense still intact is executive pay. On the Recovering Journalist blog, Mark Potts notes that the average compensation among the thirteen public-company newspaper CEOs was just under $6 million a year in 2007, according to corporate proxy filings with the SEC. These figures, one can only conclude, are entirely unrelated to performance." You got a problem with that?

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ON KNOWING YOUR BASE....The idiotic kerfuffle of the day revolves around the New York Times' rejection of an Iraq op-ed by John McCain even though they accepted and printed an op-ed by Barack Obama last week on the same subject. (Obama here, McCain here.) I don't blame the wingers for trying to gin up some outrage over this — it's pretty good base fodder, after all, and they've had a tough week — but Steve Benen explains in a nutshell why the Times accepted one piece and rejected the other:

Go ahead and read McCain's submitted piece. It has 12 paragraphs — 11 of which attack Obama directly. Obama's piece focused on Obama's vision for a sensible U.S. policy towards Iraq. McCain's submission was a hit-job, focused exclusively on attacking Obama. While Obama's op-ed mentioned McCain three times, McCain's op-ed mentioned Obama 10 times by name, and 17 times through pronouns.

That about covers it. I don't really understand why the Times published Obama's piece in the first place, since it was basically just a campaign position paper, but it's a free country. If they want to publish campaign position papers, I guess they can do it. McCain, for his part, was offered a chance to do the same, and instead wrote a relentlessly negative hit piece on Obama — and then decided he'd get more mileage from whining about the liberal media rejecting it than he would from rewriting it and getting it printed. I guess he knows his base pretty well.

Still, I want to point out one piece of unalloyed good news to emerge from all this. On Hannity & Colmes last night, deranged megahawk John Bolton said he was so spitting mad over this affair that "I may never publish another op-ed in The New York Times after this." Oh joyous day!

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SLEEPER ON BROOKS....If you'd like to read a nice, stemwinding screed against David Brooks, Jim Sleeper has you covered today. Here it is, for your enjoyment. And to prove that it's the real deal, written in a righteous fury, it's even got a bunch of typos that occasionally make it hard to figure out what he's really saying. But, have no fear, he gets his point across regardless.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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OBAMA IN IRAQ....Alexandra Zavis and Doug Smith report on Barack Obama's trip to Iraq:

After Barack Obama met with Iraqi leaders here on Monday, the Iraqi government outlined a possible schedule for a U.S. troop withdrawal that is similar to the plan the Democratic presidential candidate has pledged to follow if he is elected.

Its announcement bolstered Obama's credibility on a key foreign policy issue, early in a weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe that was designed to reassure voters concerned he lacks the experience to be commander in chief.

It also gave him a boost in his debate with Republican presidential candidate John McCain over how to end the war in Iraq. McCain has repeatedly insisted that setting a firm withdrawal date ignores conditions on the ground and could prevent the U.S. from winning the war.

Zavis and Smith seem to be among the few reporters to really understand the impact of the past few days' events. Last week McCain, by default, was the most credible of the two candidates on national security issues. Now Obama has visited Iraq and Afghanistan, talked to the commanders on the ground, talked to the head of the Iraqi government, and — to everyone's surprise — received Nouri al-Maliki's blessing. McCain's got nothing left in his quiver now. Whether the foreign policy punditocracy likes it or not, Obama, in every practical sense of the word, is now the default national security candidate.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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By: Kevin Drum

LAT BOOKS....I missed this last week when it was first announced, but apparently the LA Times' Sunday book review section is being axed. Very sad. What used to be a great national newspaper is well on its way to becoming just another struggling metro daily.

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July 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

KARADZIC CAPTURED....Radovan Karadzic, architect of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, has finally been arrested after a 13-year manhunt. Here's what Russ Baker said about him in the Monthly four years ago:

One really shouldn't engage in atrocity one-upmanship, but it's arguable that compared with such more famous current and recent fugitives as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Karadzic wins the odiousness sweepstakes. A remarkably public front man for genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the disarmingly avuncular Bosnian Serb leader dispensed lies to packed press conferences while his soldiers laid siege to Sarajevo (where he previously worked at the main hospital) and went village to village, locking families inside houses and setting them afire, bringing women to detention camps where they could be mass-raped. Along with his general and fellow fugitive Ratko Mladic, Karadzic is accused of responsibility for all manner of atrocity, most notably the 1995 massacre of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the U.N. safe area of Srebrenica, the single worst crime committed in Europe since World War II.

For more background on Karadzic and why he's been so hard to catch, read the whole thing.

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NETROOTS NATION....Responding to this post from last week, reader VT emails with a question about Netroots Nation:

"Nothing especially bloggable?" — I note almost no comments anywhere on blogs about the substance of this weekend's conference. What to make of this? Was it a lackluster event? It would be helpful to hear your overview.

Obviously tastes differ, but I'm inclined to say that I probably wouldn't go again. Partly this is just because I'm not much of a convention person. The best part of Netroots Nation was the opportunity to meet lots of people in the flesh for the first time, but those opportunities mostly came in two varieties: (a) quick 5-minute conversations between sessions, which don't do much for me, and (b) after hours in watering holes, which are a problem because my hearing isn't good enough to follow most conversations in noisy bars. I'm pretty sure, for example, that Garance Franke-Ruta must now think I'm some kind of weird semi-sociopath, but the truth is that I could hardly make out a word she said during our short bar conversation Saturday evening, which is why I probably looked so blank the whole time.

Now, this is obviously not the fault of Netroots Nation. On the program side of things, however, there's a built-in problem with NN: the panelists are almost all bloggers whose blogs I read every day. So I know what they think already. And sure enough, in person they say pretty much the same things they say on their blogs, which can get a little dull. (This includes me, of course, although I gather that at least a few people were intrigued to hear actual bad words come out of my mouth during the obscenity panel.)

Sometimes this works out OK regardless, but as a steady diet it doesn't. My recommendation, then, would be to mix things up: have some panels, but also have some expert sessions: have Tanta do an hourlong session explaining the basics of the subprime crisis, Marty Lederman do a primer on FISA, Mike O'Hare do a session on carbon taxes vs. cap-and-trade, etc. There are plenty of common blog topics that it would be nice to get a solid grounding on from someone who's both knowledgable and a straight shooter.

In addition, David Roberts suggests that the sessions need to "generate some heat. Have some panels that aren't just four or five people sharing the same perspective." Obviously there's no reason to deliberately create a Crossfire-style atmosphere, but yes: hearing different takes on subjects would liven things up. There's not much point in having a panel if all of the panelists are saying the same thing. (Though Ezra Klein may disagree.)

So that's my take. It was fun to meet people, but the sessions tended to be a little too predictable and little too echo chambery for my taste. But your mileage may vary, so comments are open if any other attendees have something to add to this.

Kevin Drum 9:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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McCAIN DESPERATION WATCH....Is the McCain campaign losing it? In an ad today about spiraling gasoline prices, the narrator asks portentously:

"Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?"

This is accompanied by the picture on the right and background noise of a crowd chanting "Obama! Obama!"

Are they serious? They're going to try to convince the American public that Barack Obama is responsible for $4 gasoline? Or is this one of those pseudo-ads that never really gets aired anywhere and is released just to see if it can get some press attention from suckers like me? Regardless, this is really lame.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Roy Edroso, on conservative efforts to insist that the economy is actually just peachy:

Could this be the year in which Mencken's Law is broken, and somebody goes broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people?

Maybe!

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$25 MILLION?....From the Politico:

After locking up his party's presidential nomination, Barack Obama's fundraising operation came roaring back to life in June, generating more than a million dollars on five days, including a whopping $25 million that came in on the last day of the month.

Something is wrong with this picture. There's no way that Obama was cruising along at a run rate of about a million bucks a day and then suddenly raised a record-smashing $25 million in a single 24-hour period. There has to be some number fiddling going on here, but the motivation escapes me. Why did the Obama campaign want people to think that June fundraising was anemic up until the very last day?

Kevin Drum 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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JUST A BUNCH OF STANS....From The Note:

Asked by ABC's Diane Sawyer Monday morning whether the "the situation in Afghanistan in precarious and urgent," McCain responded:

"I think it's serious. . . . It's a serious situation, but there's a lot of things we need to do. We have a lot of work to do and I'm afraid it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border," said McCain, R-Ariz., said on "Good Morning America."

Iraq and Pakistan do not share a border. Afghanistan and Pakistan do.

Even we partisans can get a little tired of pointing out John McCain's constant verbal flubs and, um, moments of confusion. But Jesus. The question was about Afghanistan in the first place, which was an obvious invitation to talk about its ongoing border problems with the tribal areas of Pakistan. So what does McCain do? He deliberately pivots away to mention the nonexistent Iraq/Pakistan border. Does he even know what a map of central Asia looks like? Isn't this supposed to be his strong suit?

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MALIKI AND OBAMA....This is nuts. First Nouri al-Maliki tells Der Spiegel that he thinks Barack Obama's 16-month timeline for getting out of Iraq is about right. Then his spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, tries to walk this back by claiming that Maliki's comments were mistranslated (they weren't). Now, today, Dabbagh is back, and he says Maliki likes Obama's timeline after all. From McClatchy:

After talks with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki reaffirmed that Iraq wants U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2010, a few months later than Obama had proposed.

Ali Dabbagh, the prime minister's spokesman, said Maliki and Obama didn't discuss specifics during the hour-long meeting. But he said the Iraqi government would like to see all American combat troops out of the country by the end of 2010, a bit later than Obama's proposal to draw down all combat brigades within 16 months after he'd become president.

"Barak Obama showed his support to this government," Dabbagh said. "He came to listen to our views and the views of the prime minister. And the prime minister gave him his point of view about the presence of U.S. forces and . . . what we want from the forces."

There's no walking things back this time. For better or worse, Maliki has now firmly endorsed Barack Obama's vision for the future of U.S. troops in Iraq.

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WINNING....Via Dan Drezner, Clive Crook tells us that there's a simple metric to predict the winner of a presidential election:

Alan Abramowitz, a politics scholar at Emory University, has shown that summer head-to-head polls convey almost no information about the forthcoming election. (Subsequent head-to-head polls are not much better.) Instead, he has a simple "electoral barometer" that weighs together the approval rating of the incumbent president, the economy's economic growth rate and whether the president's party has controlled the White House for two terms (the "time for a change" factor). This laughably simple metric has correctly forecast the winner of the popular vote in 14 out of 15 postwar presidential elections.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that Abramowitz's "time for a change" factor alone correctly predicts 12 out of 15 postwar presidential elections, so those other two variables don't really have to do much heavy lifting.

In any case, Abramowitz's metric, which ranges from -100 to +100, gives John McCain a score of -60 this year, which means he's as doomed as any candidate ever. This suggests two thing: (a) Obama is going to win a very convincing victory, and (b) the only real way for the McCain campaign to give itself a chance is by going negative early and hard. I'll put money on both those things.

Kevin Drum 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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July 20, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE MALIKI QUOTE....Did Der Spiegel translate Nouri al-Maliki's endorsement of Barack Obama's 16-month troop withdrawal plan correctly? Maliki's spokesman backtracked under pressure from the U.S., but Der Spiegel gave tapes of its interview to the New York Times and it looks like the magazine got it right. You have to get down to the 16th paragraph before the Times bothers to mention it, but here's a comparison of the two translations:

Spiegel: "U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes....Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic."

Times: "Obama's remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq....Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq."

Sounds pretty much the same to me. Maliki may or may not regret having said it, but he said it.

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OBAMA, THE PRESS, AND IRAQ....The big story on Saturday was Spiegel's interview with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in which he endorsed Barack Obama's 16-month timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Bush administration was so unnerved by this that they mistakenly sent an email to the entire White House press corps headlined "Iraqi PM backs Obama troop exit plan." Oops. Then they followed this up by leaning on Maliki to retract, an effort made clumsily transparent by releasing the Iraqi statement via the U.S. military's Central Command press office.

The retraction claimed that Maliki's comments were "misunderstood, mistranslated and not conveyed accurately," which might be plausible if there were only a single sentence in question. However, how likely is it that Spiegel mistranslated three separate comments? Here are the relevant excerpts from the interview:

Today, we in Iraq want to establish a timeframe for the withdrawal of international troops — and it should be short.

....U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

....Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic....The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.

There's just no way that all three of these passages were mistranslated. Maliki, for whatever reason (Mark Kleiman runs down the possibilities here), wants American troops out, and he wants them out sooner rather than later. There's really no way to spin that away.

This is, obviously, bad news for John McCain. As Joe Klein says, McCain's original support of the surge, which is his main talking point on Iraq policy, "is a small, tactical truth too complicated to be understood by most Americans. Maliki Endorses Obama Withdrawal Plan is a headline everyone can understand."

Which is true enough, but only if that's the headline the U.S. media actually decides on. Unfortunately, we're in sort of a fluid phase right now in which the press seems unsure of what narrative to adopt on the current state of American foreign policy. Consider: (a) negotiations with North Korea have recently started paying off, (b) we sent a U.S. diplomat to talk with Iran over the weekend and are apparently thinking about opening an interests section in Tehran, (c) the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, leading to calls for an increased troop presence, and (d) Maliki has endorsed the idea of a 16-month withdrawal timeline from Iraq. All of these are directions that Obama has endorsed for some time.

So does the press decide that this means Obama has shown good judgment and good instincts in foreign affairs? That seems like it would be the most reasonable interpretation, but alternatively the press could decide that what this really means is that there are now very few differences between Obama and McCain on foreign policy — without implying any judgment about who was right and who was wrong. That's a stretch, but it would be nice and faux-neutral, something that appeals to reporters.

Or, who knows? Maybe something entirely different will bubble up from the press corps. This ought to be a pretty good foreign policy moment for Obama, but we won't know for sure until the media narrative takes shape. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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July 19, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

UNDERSTANDING THE MEDIA, PART 438....According to an anonymous but well-connected source here at Netroots Nation, the First Law of Foreign Policy Punditry states that the less you know about a region, the more dangerous it must be. Thus, when a foreign policy expert knows nothing about a region, it automatically becomes elevated to the gravest national security threat we face as a nation. Unfortunately, this sounds oddly plausible.

UPDATE: In comments, Howard suggests that the inverse of this statement is also true: "When a pundit says that a region represents the gravest national security threat we face as a nation, we are safe to assume it's because that pundit is likely ignorant of that region." As a matter of pure Boolean logic that doesn't necessarily follow, but it sounds oddly plausible too, doesn't it?

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THE ECONOMY....A few days ago, in passing, I remarked that I was impressed (surprised?) by the ability of our economy to absorb so much catastrophe in such a short time without things being even worse than they are. What accounts for this? Via Mark Thoma, Tim Duy proposes several factors but singles one of them out as the most critical:

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the massive liquidity injections from the rest of the world, or what Brad Setser calls "the quiet bailout." In the first half of this, global central banks accumulated $283.5 billion of Treasuries and Agencies, something around $1,000 per capita. This is real money — I outlined the likely implications in January. Foreign CBs are happily financing the first US stimulus package; will they be happy to finance a second? Do they have a choice? Their accumulation of Agency debt is also keeping the US mortgage market afloat. Do not underestimate the impact of these foreign capital inflows. If the rest of the world treated the US like we treated emerging Asia in 1997-1998, the US economy would experience a slowdown commensurate with the magnitude of the financial market crisis.

If this is really the primary explanation for our ability to ride out the storm, then we're back to the same old place we've always been: foreigners are keeping the American economy afloat, and they'll continue to do so until they decide to stop — which could be anytime from tomorrow morning to never. It all depends on how much faith they maintain in America as a good place to invest their money.

Of course, foreign investment in the U.S. will eventually slow down. It has to. The only question is whether this investment bubble unwinds slowly or, like most bubbles, in a panic. Neither is a very pleasant long-term prospect, but obviously there's unpleasant and there's unpleasant. Let's hope for the former.

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VISITING BAGHDAD....Nancy Youssef was McClatchy's Baghdad bureau chief during the height of the violence in 2005 and 2006, back "when we didn't bat an eye at 70 bodies in the street, when a good week meant that none of our friends or sources had been killed." Now, after a stint in DC as Pentagon correspondent, she's back in Baghdad. Over at Nukes & Spooks, she describes what the city looks like today:

We went to neighborhoods I never thought I would see again, let alone at night. Street lights illuminated the shopping districts and bustling customers. People were hanging out of their cars to celebrate weddings. Couples were enjoying dinner, sitting next to windows, without the fear of a car bomb. It was so ordinary and yet almost magical.

Now, I don't want to overstate where things are. Most of the city is silent and dark again by 9 p.m. and throughout there were blast walls and barriers to keep people from parking. And no one is sure how long this will last. But for the first time in years, Baghdad felt almost like a normal city to me.

Regardless of what you think is responsible for this turnaround, this is what Barack Obama will see when he visits Iraq later in his world tour. As a result, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki wants to take the next step: drawing down the American troop presence in order to placate public opinion and allow political reconciliation to move forward too. "U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months," he told Spiegel. "That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes." It sounds like Obama's visit with Maliki (if he has one) should be a fruitful one.

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GAYS IN THE MILITARY.... Good news: according to a new Washington Post poll, just about everyone now favors allowing openly gay recruits to serve in the military:

Support from Republicans has doubled over the past 15 years, from 32 to 64 percent. More than eight in 10 Democrats and more than three-quarters of independents now support the idea, as did nearly two-thirds of self-described conservatives.

....Fifty-seven percent of white evangelical Protestants now support allowing openly gay service members in the military, compared with 82 percent of white Catholics and 80 percent of those with no declared religious affiliation. Three-quarters of both married and single people support the idea, both significantly higher than in 1993.

It looks like the American public is finally growing up.

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July 18, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S BIG TRIP....In comments, loki demands to know what I think of Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Europe and the Middle East. Instead of offering a longwinded analysis of my own, let me turn over the floor to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post:

The three network anchors will travel to Europe and the Middle East next week for Barack Obama's trip, adding their high-wattage spotlight to what is already shaping up as a major media extravaganza.

Lured by an offer of interviews with the Democratic presidential candidate, Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric will make the overseas trek, meaning that the NBC, ABC and CBS evening newscasts will originate from stops along the route and undoubtedly give it big play....The plan is for Williams, Gibson and Couric interviews to be parceled out on successive nights in different countries, giving each anchor a one-day exclusive.

....The senator from Illinois has been drawing far more media attention than his Republican rival from Arizona....When McCain visited Britain, France and Israel in March and met with their leaders, no network anchors tagged along. NBC and ABC sent correspondents; CBS did not. None of the evening newscasts covered his trip to Canada last month. And McCain's swing through Colombia and Mexico two weeks ago was barely covered, although NBC and ABC sent correspondents.

Do I still need to answer the question? I mean, what's not to like?

(But am I afraid that Obama will overdo it and turn the whole thing into an unseemly spectacle? Nah. He's a pretty sharp guy. The only thing he's going to turn this into is a gold mine of free publicity.)

(However, I will offer this free prediction: Either National Review or the Weekly Standard — or both! — will headline their recap of the trip, "The Innocent Abroad." You heard it here first.)

Kevin Drum 7:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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THE DOG THAT DIDN'T BARK IN THE NIGHT....David Brooks writes today in "The Coming Activist Age" that we are entering an era of "epic legislation." He then ticks off five areas that he thinks will "compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years": healthcare, energy, education, financial markets, and infrastructure.

Fine. But then he tries to make the point that this doesn't necessarily favor Democrats. Sure, he says, Dems are the natural party of federal vigor:

Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule....Two of the most prominent conservative reformers were Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt. Both reframed the political debate so that it was not change versus the status quo, it was unfamiliar change versus cautious, patriotic change designed to preserve the traditional virtues of the nation.

Those are odd choices, aren't they? A Victorian era prime minister and a guy who accidentally became president in 1901. Surely there must have been some prominent conservative reformers from within the past century that he could have named instead. Anyone? Bueller?

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Sorry, felinophiles, but I haven't seen any cats in Austin, so no catblogging today. Let the wailing and rending begin.....

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GAY MARRIAGE IN CALIFORNIA....Here's the latest Field Poll on Proposition 8, the initiative that would ban same-sex marriage in California. There are still four months to go before the election, but initiatives have a hard time passing in California these days just generally, and nine points is a big deficit to make up under any circumstances. Given this, I think we can be cautiously optimistic that Prop 8 is going to fail, which means that gay marriage will have been approved by the courts, the governor, the legislature, and the public. There's no way anyone will be able to complain that it's anything but completely legitimate.

I've included the age demographics from the poll because I thought they were intriguing. Normally you see a very distinct age gradient in questions like this, with young people broadly in favor of gay marriage, middle-aged people split, and older people opposed. This time, however, the difference is fairly modest and the ban is opposed by every single age group. Interesting.

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GENERATION CELL....Are telephone surveys that don't include cell phones accurate? Apparently so, even as the number of cell phone users continues to grow. Here's the latest from Pew, which just conducted a survey of both cell and landline users:

Cell-only respondents are significantly more likely than either the landline respondents or the cell-mostly respondents to support Barack Obama and Democratic candidates for Congress this fall. They also are substantially less likely to be registered to vote and — among registered voters — somewhat less likely to say they are absolutely certain they will vote.

Here's what this boils down to. In the landline-only sample, Obama was ahead by five points, 46-41, but in the combined sample he was ahead by eight points, 48-40. Among people who are certain of their vote, Obama leads by eight points in the landline sample and ten points in the combined sample.

This suggests that although we're starting to get to the point where pollsters risk some genuine distortion if they don't include cell users in their surveys, we're not there yet. The differences in the Pew poll are still small and might just be a sampling fluke. Within a few years, though, this is likely to change, and in the meantime maybe it would be worth someone's time to do a mega-survey (say, 10,000 respondents) to get a better handle on this.

UPDATE: One more thing, though: it's worth noting that among cell-phone-only users (i.e., people who don't have landlines at all and use cell phones exclusively), Obama beat McCain by a whopping 29 points, 61-32. The reason it didn't affect the overall numbers much is because — so far — they're still a pretty small proportion of the population. Also, there's this interesting demographic breakdown of cell-only and cell-mostly users:

Compared with all respondents reached on a landline, both groups are significantly younger, more likely to be male, and less likely to be white. But the cell-only and cell-mostly also are different from one another on many characteristics. Compared with the cell-only, the cell-mostly group is more affluent, better educated, and more likely to be married, to have children, and to own a home.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From mild-mannered sociology professor Kieran Healy, commenting on whether or not it's worth it to confront someone who's jumped to the front of a queue:

"How does it hurt you?" That, my friends, is the coolly rational voice of homo economicus. While H.E. has his virtues, and can often help you think straight, sometimes you just have to tell him to fuck off.

This is dedicated to the "Different Tones and Wider Nets" session at Netroots Nation, on which I am currently participating.

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CLIMATE CHANGE FOR RUBES....Jonah Goldberg chortles a bit over at The Corner:

The same day that Al Gore does his man-to-the-moon spiel on global warming, the American Physical Society — the second largest professional association of physicists — rescinds its total support for the global warming.

I await the usual chorus to sing us a tune about how the APS is "anti-science."

I guess he missed the update:

Update 7/17/2008: After publication of this story, the APS responded with a statement that its Physics and Society Forum is merely one unit within the APS, and its views do not reflect those of the Society at large.

Lord Monckton, who triggered the original article in DailyTech, may be a lord, but he's also a longtime global warming skeptic. There's nothing new here, and, as you might expect, scientists continue to believe that climate change is largely driven by human activity. Nice try, though.

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ARE THEY EQUIPPED WITH FLYING GEISHAS?....Hmmm. "Comfort capsules" for senior Air Force officers? That's sort of an unfortunate choice of phrasing, isn't it?

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YET MORE IRAN BLOGGING....OK, I get it. There just aren't very many people who are interested in the fact that George Bush is planning to open an interests section in Tehran. But just in case you're one of the enlightened few, the New York Times confirmed the Guardian's original account today and added a few more tidbits:

The idea would be to open a so-called interests section, rather than a fully staffed embassy, with American diplomats who could issue visas to Iranians seeking to visit the United States....One senior European official said that Mr. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, had told a number of his counterparts in Tokyo in recent weeks that Ms. Rice was committed to moving forward on the decision to put American diplomats in Tehran, but that the decision still faced opposition from conservatives opposed to any kind of closer ties with Iran.

"My feeling is that the decision was more or less taken and the administration's problem was when and how to announce it," the official said. "They want to do it, but for domestic political reasons they don't know how and when, and maybe even if, they can do it."

Another senior official from another European country who deals directly with Iran went further, saying Ms. Rice had indicated in recent private discussions that the decision was already final, and that it was only a matter of time before it was announced.

On a related note, Laura Rozen reports that national security advisor Steven Hadley and Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki both just happen to be in Turkey right now. Probably just a coincidence, but you never know.

Anyway, that's the latest. You may now return to whatever you were doing before you read this.

UPDATE: Oddly enough, the last paragraph I excerpted from the Times story is no longer there this morning. I have no idea if this means anything substantive.

Kevin Drum 12:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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July 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SCIENCE BLOGGING!....I feel like I should write something about Netroots Nation, but the truth is that I've only been to a single session so far, a (surprisingly) well attended caucus of science bloggers. There was nothing especially bloggable about the session, but I will say that I was a little surprised about how besieged people felt. "We're totally unorganized while conservatives are an unstoppable juggernaut." "They play offense while we play defense." "We'll be playing catchup for the next two decades." Etc.

Now, I guess interest groups always feel this way. But the funny thing is that if there's any area where this really isn't true, it's in the confluence of environmental and climate change policy (the main topic of conversation at the session). In these areas, liberals have an enormous, widespread, and well-financed set of both grass roots organizations (think Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Al Gore, etc.) and public interest law groups that have been around for decades. Want to build a refinery, LNG port or nuclear power plant somewhere in the United States? Good luck. You'll be in court for the rest of your life. Coal-fired power plants aren't quite at the same stage yet, but they're getting there.

Or there's this: "The genius of the Republicans is that for every energy problem, the answer is always drilling in ANWR," said one attendee admiringly. "Maybe we should adopt some of their methods." Maybe, but after 40 years, we're still not drilling in ANWR. Likewise, conservatives may loathe the Endangered Species Act, but it's still around — and after 40 years of nibbling at it, even right-wing judges have barely made a dent in it. Long story short, maybe those devastating conservative methods aren't as devastating as we scare ourselves into thinking.

Now, obviously conservatives have had some successes, though for the most part they've come in the area of stealth legislation, not head-on battles on big ticket environmental issues (because they know they can't win those battles). What's more, the reason they haven't caused more havoc is because liberal interest groups have fought back hard. Complacency would be disastrous.

Still, it's taken Herculean obstructionism from the conservative machine over the past seven years just to hold on by their fingertips, a state of affairs that can't last forever. As they know all too well, when it comes to the environment, the science community is on our side, Hollywood is on our side, and the public is on our side (increasingly so, in fact). Conservatives will continue fighting a furious rearguard action, but just because they haven't surrendered abjectly doesn't mean they're gaining any serious ground. On this issue at least, it's liberals who are quite clearly on offense and conservatives who are on defense. Just ask any conservative.

I know it's natural for any interest group to feel like their opponents are an unstoppable monolith, but in this case it's really not true. It's just that winning big issues takes a long time. Liberals are pretty clearly on the winning side of this particular battle, and we ought to give ourselves a little more credit for keeping ourselves there.

Kevin Drum 11:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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FINANCIAL REPORTING FOLLIES....The New York Times reports today that the stock market is up. Here's the story they invented to explain it: (a) there's a widespread belief that the global economy is tanking, thus (b) reducing the demand for oil and (c) driving down oil prices. Wall Street, (d) seeing plummeting oil prices, (e) is elated and (f) drives stock prices up.

There are two basic possibilities here: (a) this explanation has been created out of whole cloth or (b) Wall Street investors are idiots. Or both. For now, I'm going with (a).

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WHAT'S GOING ON WITH IRAN?....Am I off base, or is it sort of weird that there's been so little followup to the news that the Bush administration plans to open an "interests section" in Tehran? None of the big U.S. newspapers has so much as mentioned this story yet, which either means they don't think it's a big deal (unlikely) or that not a single one of them has been able to confirm the original Guardian report (also unlikely). Over at The Corner, where I figured they'd be going ballistic, the news has been met with nothing more than a shrug.

Now, sure, an interests section is not an embassy (we already have one in Cuba, for example), but this would still be a pretty stunning turnaround, wouldn't it? Especially since the rapprochement appears to be mutual. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has indicated he's open to a U.S. proposal and an Iranian spokesman later confirmed that Iran is open to direct talks. How cordial! So why the radio silence?

At the very least, shouldn't the talking heads be talking about the political implications of this news? Barack Obama favors direct talks with Iran and John McCain doesn't, and now here comes George Bush apparently clearing the deck for direct talks. So what does McCain do now? He'll tap dance a bit, of course, claiming that Bush is not doing precisely what Obama proposed (which is true), but he's certainly moving in that direction. Doesn't this cut McCain's legs out from under him? Doesn't it make Obama look more prescient and presidential? Shouldn't this at a minimum be a fascinating topic for fact-free cable news speculation and talk radio bloviation? I think so!

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BARBECUE ROUNDUP....It's not quite as hot in Austin as I expected, but still plenty hot. On the bright side, at least I don't work at Smitty's Market in Lockhart, where, they told us, "we go outside when we want to cool down."

There were five of us on today's barbecue pilgrimage, including Blue Girl, who finally escaped Amtrak hell and made it to Austin at three in the morning, and Joe Garcia, who's trying to unseat Mario Diaz-Balart in Florida's 25th congressional district. If Joe's ability to pound down Texas barbecue is any indication, he should be a landslide winner in November.

My verdict on Smitty's: great brisket, pretty good ribs, so-so pork chops, didn't try the sausage. On Saturday we'll try crosstown/cross-family rival Kreutz Market and see how they stack up.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Brendan Nyhan, commenting on yesterday's hyperbolic New York Times story about continuing racial divisions in the United States:

Shorter New York Times: Barack Obama hasn't magically healed racial divide in the US. He's been the Democratic nominee for more than a month. What is he waiting for?

There's no question that Obamamania was a real phenomenon during the primaries, but the press magnified it into something way bigger than it ever was and then ended up believing their own hype. That's how we end up with stories like this.

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McCAIN WALKS THE PLANK....First John McCain was against gay adoption, and he got hammered for it. So now he's for it — sort of. Turns out evangelicals aren't amused. Steve Benen has the details.

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THE PROBLEM WITH HYBRIDS....Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were examples of institutions known as Government Sponsored Entities, or GSEs. That is, they were neither fish nor fowl, neither fully private nor fully public. Larry Summers writes today that this was a big part of their problem:

When there were business failures it was always the result of their social obligations. Government budget discipline was not appropriate because it was always emphasized that they were "private companies." But market discipline was nearly nonexistent given the general perception — now validated — that their debt was government backed. Little wonder with gains privatized and losses socialized that the enterprises have gambled their way into financial catastrophe.

....It is hard in this world to do well. It is hard to do good. When I hear a claim that an institution is going to do both, I reach for my wallet. You should too.

Is Summers being too skeptical? Is this a general problem, or were Freddie and Fannie one-off failures that were inevitable in a meltdown as spectacular as our recent mortgage bubble/bust? Discuss.

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AGUANOMICS....Yesterday I linked to David Zetland's piece in Forbes arguing that residential water ought to be priced to better reflect genuine supply and demand. Sure, I replied, but how about agricultural water too?

Zetland emails this morning to say he more-or-less agrees: "My idea for ALL water is that it be allocated via wholesale auctions. Farmers have the rights, they can sell (take the $$) or keep the water." What's more, it turns out he has an entire blog dedicated to water economics. Pretty amazing place, the intertubes. I'm about to start in on Cadillac Desert, so I've bookmarked it and I'm going to check it out for a while. If you're interested in water economics too, the blog is called Aguanomics, which is not only a pretty cool name, but would probably annoy Mickey Kaus. It's a twofer!

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VIRGINIA....A couple of weeks ago a friend in Virginia emailed to complain that Barack Obama didn't seem to be taking his home state very seriously. There wasn't even an Obama office in Richmond yet! Then, a couple of days ago, he emailed to tell me that Richmond finally had its office. Hooray! I thought of him this morning when I read this in the Washington Post:

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign announced Wednesday that it is adding 20 offices across Virginia, an unprecedented effort by a presidential candidate and another sign that he plans to compete vigorously in a state that has been on the sidelines during past presidential contests.

....The offices, partially funded by the Democratic National Committee, are the latest signal that Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, considers Virginia to be a crucial component of his strategy for securing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Virginia has 13 electoral votes.

Plus there's the news that Obama raised $52 million in June, a record number that seems even more dramatic than it is because the Obama campaign's delay in announcing their totals had started fueling rumors that his fundraising was in trouble. If that was deliberate, it's very shrewd showmanship indeed.

Anyway, Virginia is in play big time. That's very bad news indeed for John McCain.

Kevin Drum 10:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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TALKING TO IRAN....If yesterday's news that an American diplomat would fly to Geneva this weekend to attend a meeting with Iran caused John Bolton to set his mustache on fire, what do you think this news is going to do?

The US plans to establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time in 30 years as part of a remarkable turnaround in policy by President George Bush.

The Guardian has learned that an announcement will be made in the next month to establish a US interests section — a halfway house to setting up a full embassy. The move will see US diplomats stationed in the country.

Unnamed "officials" had previously insisted that yesterday's agreement to attend the Geneva meeting was a "one-time decision," but if the Guardian is right, that was just a smokescreen. Apparently President Bush is thinking about his legacy more and more these days.

In any case, kudos to Bush if this is true. It's hard not to believe that this move was at least partly motivated by the tit-for-tat Israeli and Iranian military exercises recently, but if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes. Better late than never.

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A NEW SHERIFF?...."As a long time critic of the K Street Project," writes a conservative friend, "I assume you will be equally critical of this." The subject at hand is lobbying:

The Senate Democratic leadership summoned the chiefs of 17 major trade associations to the Capitol on Wednesday to send a subtle but unmistakable message: If you want our help on your issues, stop helping the Republicans block our bills.

....If it was a step-in-line message Democrats were hoping to send, they were treading on sensitive terrain. After taking control of Congress in the 1990s, Republicans hauled corporate leaders into meetings, first to tell them to help with legislation and later to pressure them to fire Democrats and hire Republicans for top jobs. The effort, known as the K Street Project, led to PR troubles, ethics flaps and a string of criminal cases involving Jack Abramoff.

Democrats dismiss the comparison — they say they aren't strong-arming anyone into hiring Democrats — and, in truth, both parties have been aggressive on this front for years.

Hmmm. Will I be equally critical of this? Probably not, I guess. After all, my take on the K Street Project (described memorably by Nick Confessore in "Welcome to the Machine") has always been pretty frankly partisan. My dislike for the Project wasn't motivated so much by any philosophical problem with lobbyists per se as it was by the fact that the wrong guys had gotten so insanely good at co-opting them.

So I guess I'm just a hack after all. Still, I'll at least go this far: it would be nice if the Democrats refrained from (a) building enormous databases to keep track of who's naughty and who's nice on a 24/7 basis, (b) making the hiring of Democrats a prerequisite for doing business with Congress, and (c) becoming so corrupt in the process that the Justice Department can hardly keep up with the indictments. A new sheriff in town is one thing, the resurrection of Boss Tweed is another.

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July 16, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

OUTTA HERE....I'm about to get on a plane to Austin, where I'll be attending Netroots Nation for the next few days. Blogging during the convention may be either heavy or light, depending on how much time I have, how good the WiFi connections are, how interesting the sessions are, whether my MacBook performs as advertised, etc. etc. There's no telling, really, but one way or the other there will at least be some blogging, so don't go away.

If you're going to be at NN yourself, be sure to look me up. I'll be wandering around the convention center lobby Thursday morning, heading down to Lockhart for barbecue after the morning sessions are over, and then back for the keynote in the evening. So I should be easy to find.

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GRAND NEW PARTY....Over at TPM they're spending the week discussing Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's manifesto for the resurrection of the GOP, Grand New Party. It's a breezy, readable book that, I think admirably, manages to maintain a strong point of view without being dogmatic about it. I reviewed it for the current issue of the Monthly, and my reaction was mixed:

During the week I spent reading Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's Grand New Party, I had half a dozen different reactions to it. First I was annoyed. Then intrigued. Then, at various times, impressed, curious, and taken aback. And finally a bit baffled. But that's a good thing, right? Better than being bored, certainly.

Let's start with "annoyed."

Yes, let's! But you'll have to read the review to see what annoyed me. Also to see what intrigued, impressed, and took me aback. Once we're through all that, however, we eventually get to their policy prescriptions at the end of the book, and this is where the "baffled" part comes in. R&R basically want Republicans to lighten up on the slogans and instead pursue policies that are really family friendly and pro-working class:

Among other things, they propose a massive overhaul of the tax code to encourage family building; subsidies (or pension credits) to parents who care for children at home; more spending on highways; a national health insurance plan very similar to the one most Democrats support today; job subsidies for entry-level jobs; summer enrichment programs for poor kids; more cops on the street; a new school funding formula; and a more progressive payroll tax.

The tax plan, they say, is revenue neutral, and the job subsidy program they cost out at $85 billion per year. The other programs they don't put a price tag on. But my very rough estimate pegs the whole thing at several hundred billion dollars per year. Put a gun to my head and I'd guess $500 billion. Like all good social program enthusiasts, they claim that these things will eventually pay for themselves either partly or wholly, but even a liberal like me, who's practically hardwired to believe that well-designed social programs can kinda sorta pay for themselves, finds that hard to swallow. No matter how you slice it, this is a very big agenda.

Now, obviously R&R have heard this criticism a thousand times already, but that doesn't make it any less true: the moneycons still control the Republican Party and I have a very hard time seeing them warm up to this agenda anytime soon. My $500 billion price tag on their agenda is obviously just a wild flyer (and, I confess, influenced by the fact that I don't really believe their natalist tax plan is revenue neutral), but no matter how you slice it they're proposing some awfully expensive social engineering — and one way or another that's going to mean a whopping big tax increase. Real-life politics is governed by interest groups, and which GOP interest group is anywhere close to big enough to push this through?

Still, that said, there's a raging debate in GOP circles these days between traditional small government conservatives and a younger crowd of frankly big government conservatives who think the Goldwater/Reagan legacy has run out of electoral steam. Grand New Party is the best and clearest manifesto yet for the latter. It may be, as I say, that at this point it's mostly "the political equivalent of raising the alert level to DEFCON 2," but if older Republicans don't pay attention to the warning, at least they can't say no one warned them.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Maureen Dowd, parodying herself so effectively that she basically puts all the rest of us out of work:

John McCain's Don Rickles routines — "Thanks for the question, you little jerk" — can fall flat. But he seems like a guy who can be teased harmlessly. If Obama offers only eat-your-arugula chiding and chilly earnestness, he becomes an otherworldly type, not the regular guy he needs to be.

Does she have a machine that types this stuff for her, or what?

On the other hand, Dowd is a pretty reliable canary-in-the-coal-mine for upwelling conventional wisdom. Is "humorless" about to take off as this year's version of "stiff" (2000) and "effete" (2004)?

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WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE....Via Tyler Cowen, David Zetland writes in Forbes that California wouldn't have to ration water if prices responded to supply and demand instead of being fixed bureaucratically:

If water was priced to reflect scarcity, a decrease in supply would lead to an increase in price, and people would demand less....I propose a system where every person gets the first 75 gallons, or 1.5 bathtubs, per day for free but pays $5.60 for each 75 gallons after that. Under my system, the monthly bill for the average household of three would come to $95.

Details aside, maybe that's the right way to go. After all, market pricing is usually the best default method for allocating goods and services. One thing, though: this is going to be a hard sell unless agribusiness is included too. If we charged them market prices for water (a) food prices would go up a few pennies and (b) there'd be so much water left over for residential use we'd hardly know what to do with it. We'd be awash in the stuff.

Just a pipe dream, of course. Our current welter of overlapping regulatory regimes, fiat property rights, and massive lobbying efforts insures that water policy will continue to be crazy for decades to come. But someday the revolution will come.

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OBAMA vs. McCAIN....I periodically take a look at the poll-of-polls average maintained by RealClear Politics for the general election, primarily to keep myself on an even keel whenever I see a new poll showing one candidate or the other suddenly doing better or worse than expected. Here's today's, and as you can see nothing much has changed. Obama began to open up a sizable lead on McCain after the final primaries on June 3, and ever since Hillary's concession speech later that week he's maintained a 5-point lead, give or take a few points.

There's no larger point to make here. Just thought you'd all like to see the numbers.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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DOUBLETALK IN IRAQ?....Speaking of weird, this is sort of peculiar too. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it.

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TOO WEIRD FOR THE WIRE....Three years ago Shawn Earl Gardner and three co-defendants appeared in federal court in Baltimore on charges of drug dealing and first degree murder. But as Kevin Carey reports in "Too Weird for The Wire" in the current issue of the Monthly, the case took a strange turn after the first three defendants launched a bizarre defense:

Judge Davis ordered the three defendants to be removed from the court, and turned to Gardner, who had, until then, remained quiet. But Gardner, too, intoned the same strange speech. "I am Shawn Earl Gardner, live man, flesh and blood," he proclaimed. Every time the judge referred to him as "the defendant" or "Mr. Gardner," Gardner automatically interrupted: "My name is Shawn Earl Gardner, sir." Davis tried to explain to Gardner that his behavior was putting his chances of acquittal or leniency at risk. "Don't throw your life away," Davis pleaded. But Gardner wouldn't stop. Judge Davis concluded the hearing, determined to find out what was going on.

As it turned out, he wasn't alone. In the previous year, nearly twenty defendants in other Baltimore cases had begun adopting what lawyers in the federal courthouse came to call "the flesh-and-blood defense." The defense, such as it is, boils down to this: As officers of the court, all defense lawyers are really on the government's side, having sworn an oath to uphold a vast, century-old conspiracy to conceal the fact that most aspects of the federal government are illegitimate, including the courts, which have no constitutional authority to bring people to trial. The defendants also believed that a legal distinction could be drawn between their name as written on their indictment and their true identity as a "flesh and blood man."

What was this all about? And what happened next? The answer to both questions may surprise you. Click here to read the whole thing.

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IRAN UPDATE....The latest on the diplomacy front:

President Bush has authorized the most significant American diplomatic contact with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, sending the State Department's third-ranking official to Geneva for a meeting this weekend on Iran's nuclear program, administration officials said Tuesday.

....William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, will attend a meeting on Saturday with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement on Wednesday.

As usual, I'm not clear on what took us so long, but this is good news regardless. It may be unlikely to lead to anything significant in the near term, but baby steps are better than none.

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CRUDE AWAKENING....Three years ago, in a piece called "Crude Awakening," I reviewed Twilight in the Desert, a book by Matthew Simmons which argued that Saudi Arabia had a lot less oil than they claimed. Simmons believed that their existing fields, including the freakishly productive supergiant Ghawar field, were barely able to sustain their existing production rates, and that new fields were few and far between. As a result, he estimated that although Saudi production might increase a bit in coming years, it would never hit their stated goal of 15 million barrels a day or anything close to it.

This week, in a piece called — you guessed it — "Crude Awakening," Business Week claims to have gotten access to a super-secret internal Saudi document with a field-by-field breakdown of estimated Saudi oil production from 2009 through 2013. Its conclusion? 15 million barrels is a pipe dream:

The detailed document, obtained from a person with access to Saudi oil officials, suggests that Saudi Aramco will be limited to sustained production of just 12 million barrels a day in 2010, and will be able to maintain that volume only for short, temporary periods such as emergencies. Then it will scale back to a sustainable production level of about 10.4 million barrels a day, according to the data.

....One dramatic part of the data concerns a site called Ghawar, which has been the kingdom's workhorse field for decades. It shows the field producing 5.4 million barrels a day next year, but the volume then falling off rapidly, to 4.475 million daily barrels in 2013.

Italics mine. If this document is accurate, it means that Simmons was right on the money. What's worse, the details are even more discouraging: as the chart on the right shows, what little production increase the Saudis can sustain is all in medium and heavy crudes. Production of light crude, preferred by most refineries, actually decreases by 200,000 barrels per day between now and 2013.

For what it's worth, Saudi authorities say Business Week is wrong. From Reuters: "Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia will be able to pump at 12.5 million barrels per day for as long as the market needs when new capacity comes online next year, a Saudi oil official told Reuters on Tuesday....'This is sustainable for as long as the market needs it,' he said. 'We are on track to reach production capacity of 12.5 million bpd by the middle of next year and we will do it.'" Personally, I'm inclined to believe Simmons and Business Week, but time will tell. Stay tuned.

Via FuturePundit.

NOTE: I should mention that I'm not accusing Business Week of ripping off the title of my 2005 piece. We weren't the first to use it, and as near as I can tell just about everyone who writes about oil supply shocks eventually uses "crude awakening" in a headline. This won't be the last time you see it.

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July 15, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

GO, RALPH, GO....In the latest Washington Post poll, Barack Obama is eight points ahead of John McCain. However, if you add Bob Barr and Ralph Nader into the mix, he's ten points ahead (see below). Does that mean liberals should once again be cheering on Nader? What's the party line these days?

UPDATE: Chris Hayes emails to point to a piece he wrote in 2004, when Nader was polling at 5% too. Nickel version: a lot of these people are just low-information independents who name Nader because he's also an "independent." When November rolls around, they'll vote for someone else. Full explanation here.

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PAKISTAN....There are all sorts of terrorism-related issues to be worried about, but if al-Qaeda is at the top of your list then that means that Pakistan is also at the top of your list. Here's what Barack Obama had to say about Pakistan in his big national security speech today:

The greatest threat to [the shared security of Afghanistan and the United States] lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where terrorists train and insurgents strike into Afghanistan. We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as President, I won't. We need a stronger and sustained partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO to secure the border, to take out terrorist camps, and to crack down on cross-border insurgents. We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights.

Make no mistake: we can't succeed in Afghanistan or secure our homeland unless we change our Pakistan policy. We must expect more of the Pakistani government, but we must offer more than a blank check to a General who has lost the confidence of his people. It's time to strengthen stability by standing up for the aspirations of the Pakistani people. That's why I'm cosponsoring a bill with Joe Biden and Richard Lugar to triple non-military aid to the Pakistani people and to sustain it for a decade, while ensuring that the military assistance we do provide is used to take the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda. We must move beyond a purely military alliance built on convenience, or face mounting popular opposition in a nuclear-armed nation at the nexus of terror and radical Islam.

"We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region." This is where the rubber hits the road, and it really ought to be a key campaign issue. But it probably won't be, for the same reason that Medicare usually takes a back seat to Social Security in arguments over entitlement growth: It's too hard. It's relatively easy to talk about Iraq (let's leave vs. let's stay) or even Afghanistan (more troops vs. lots more troops), but al-Qaeda is in Pakistan right now and nobody has a good answer about what we should do about that. The Bush administration has bobbled back and forth over the past seven years, accomplishing little, and frankly, liberal analysts haven't done much better.

Not that I really blame them. I sure don't know what to do. I'm not convinced that more helicopters and more predator drones are going to help much — though I'm open to argument on this score — but I'm also not convinced that tripling non-military aid to Pakistan is going to make a big difference either.

In any case, when we talk about Afghanistan we're really mostly talking about Pakistan — and that means that Pakistan really deserves more than an occasional brief mention from the two candidates. It's the biggest, most intractable problem we face in the region, and we don't know what to do about it.

Kevin Drum 2:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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BOOK PLUG....Our new issue will be up any day now, but in the meantime here's a plug for Hope is a Tattered Flag: Voices of Reason and Change for the Post-Bush Era, a collection of interviews from the Monthly's radio program. Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review:

These transcripts are full of wit and surprising insights; Bill Richardson, for instance, tells a story about winning over notorious dictator Hugo Chavez with the gift of a baseball glove. Bill Clinton's speech-writer, Paul Glastris, admits they "cribbed like crazy from Ronald Reagan." The Nation editor Christopher Hayes explains why corporate entities are begging the federal government for more regulation; to quote a Chamber of Commerce head, Hayes says, "You want to be sure you're at the table to make sure you're not on the menu."

Buy it online or at your favorite bookstore. It's never too early to being preparing for the post-Bush era, after all.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From John McCain spokesman Taylor Griffin, distancing the campaign from remarks about Social Security made by the almost comically gaffe-prone Carly Fiorina:

"The lesson of history is that too many specifics at this point polarize the debate, that is the argument Carly was trying to make."

Uh huh. Mark Kleiman translates: "If we told the retirees how completely we plan to shaft them, they might not vote for us."

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ECONOMIC UPDATE....Retail sales were up a minuscule 0.1% in June. Yippee. But inflation is still a concern, so Bernanke says not to expect any help on his end:

In prepared testimony at the Senate Banking Committee, Mr. Bernanke avoided the word "recession" in characterizing the current economy, noting instead that consumer spending and exports were keeping growth "at a sluggish pace" while the housing sector "continues to weaken."

....He said that while the risks to the overall economy were still "skewed to the downside," inflation "seems likely to move temporarily higher in the near term." The Fed, Mr. Bernanke said, needed to guard against higher prices spreading throughout the economy.

Meanwhile, credit crisis #4 is brewing on the horizon. Batten the hatches, folks.

UPDATE: That "credit crisis #4" comment was overly cryptic. Sorry. Paul Krugman briefly explains the "TED spread" here:

The TED spread is the difference between the interest rate banks charge each other on 3-month loans (3-month LIBOR) and the interest rate on 3-month U.S. Treasury bills. It's a measure of financial jitters. If banks believe that their peers are solid, they should be willing to lend each other money on almost the same terms as money lent to Uncle Sam. When they start demanding a big interest rate premium, that's a sign of fear.

The TED spread has spiked three times in the past year, indicating three separate credit crises (all of them related, obviously, but still separate). Today Krugman notes that the TED spread is again starting to spike in the wake of the IndyMac/Freddie/Fannie failures, which may mean that yet another credit crisis is brewing.

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SHALE OIL....Sen. Ken Salazar (D–Col.) writes in the Washington Post today that shale oil crops up every couple of decades as a potential energy savior promising billions of barrels of black gold if only the goo-goos would get out of the way. This time around, he says, the technology for extracting shale oil looks a little more promising than in the past, but it's still largely unproven:

Unfortunately, the administration's approach carries none of the Western wisdom acquired over the past century. In a frenzied attempt to move a failed agenda in its last days, the Bureau of Land Management is trying to organize a fire sale of commercial oil shale leases on public land.

This sale would be a tragic case of putting the cart before the horse. How is a federal agency to establish regulations, lease land and then manage oil shale development without knowing whether the technology is commercially viable, how much water the technology would need (no small question in the arid West), how much carbon would be emitted, the source of the electricity to power the projects, or what the effects would be on Western landscapes?

....With more than 30,000 acres of public land at their disposal to conduct research, development and demonstration projects (in addition to 200,000 undeveloped acres of private oil shale lands they own in Colorado and Utah), they already have more land than they can develop in the foreseeable future.

So why is the president hurrying to sell leases for commercial oil shale development in the West's great landscapes? A fire sale will not lower gas prices. It will not accelerate the development of commercial oil shale technologies.

Why? I suppose because it gives the impression of doing something, and just happens to benefit a bunch of energy companies at the same time. Has the Bush administration ever needed any more reason than that?

Kevin Drum 1:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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July 14, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WE'RE #4!....Even though I live in Irvine, I don't really have any special opinion about whether it's one of the best places to live in America. Depends on what you like, I suppose. But what I'm really curious about is how Money magazine's list can change so dramatically from year to year. I mean, last year we weren't even in the top 100, and suddenly this year we're #4? What happened?

Kevin Drum 11:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THAT NEW YORKER COVER....REMIXED....Over at Napsterization, Mary Hodder does a remix of the Obama New Yorker cover based on my suggestion from last night. Thanks, Mary!

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AFGHANISTAN....I've been noodling and reading about Afghanistan lately. I don't really have anything new and interesting to say about it yet — I'm still just thinking — but Juan Cole writes today that he's uneasy with the standard liberal view (shared by Barack Obama) that we should get out of Iraq in order to free up troops for the "real" fight in Afghanistan:

If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don't think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq. If playing it up is politics, then it is dangerous politics. Presidents can become captive of their own record and end up having to commit to things because they made strong representations about them to the public.

....Afghan tribes are fractious. They feud. Their territory is vast and rugged, and they know it like the back of their hands. Afghans are Jeffersonians in the sense that they want a light touch from the central government, and heavy handedness drives them into rebellion. Stand up Karzai's army and air force and give him some billions to bribe the tribal chiefs, and let him apply carrot and stick himself. We need to get out of there. "Al-Qaeda" was always Bin Laden's hype. He wanted to get us on the ground there so that the Mujahideen could bleed us the way they did the Soviets. It is a trap.

Beware.

The main argument for beefing up our presence in Afghanistan is obvious: It's the home of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and these are the groups we really ought to be fighting. But what's left of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, and Cole argues that this is largely where the remnants of the Taliban are too. (See, for example, today's New York Times piece about the Taliban taking control of a famous and highly profitable marble quarry in Pakistan's tribal areas.) So if we're not going to invade Pakistan (and we're not) and the supposed Taliban rebels in Afghanistan are really just "disgruntled Pushtun villagers" (Cole's guess), then what are we doing there?

Now, I'm not sure I buy this. At least some of those Taliban rebels really are Taliban rebels, and in any case, if we left Afghanistan we'd certainly be giving both the Taliban and al-Qaeda far more freedom of movement than they currently have. On the other hand, it's true that right now most Taliban and al-Qaeda forces are in Pakistan, and we don't have much of a strategy for going after them there — regardless of how many troops we have available. So we're stuck: we can't go forward and we can't go back. We've been slowly but continually increasing our presence in Afghanistan for the past five years, and all it's gotten us is steadily less control of the country and a steadily higher body count.

So what's the strategy going forward? Is there one? More later.

Kevin Drum 3:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE....Writing about the blog Stuff White People Like (now available in book form!), Samhita Mukhopadhyay says in the Prospect that its power comes from the fact that for the first time it explicitly identifies white culture as a culture, not merely the default background of American life:

To be sure, not all white culture has escaped scrutiny. Jeff Foxworthy has been on the comedy circuit (and on TV) for decades. And what about Roseanne, or the Canadian show The Trailer Park Boys, or the Blue Collar Comedy Tour? True, this segment of pop culture examines working-class whiteness, often quite critically. What makes Stuff White People Like special is that it describes relatively wealthy white Americans, and in doing so, recognizes that their particular culture has been mainstreamed and presented by Hollywood as the norm.

I think this might explain why I never really appreciated SWPL much: it's a generational thing. As Mukhopadhyay points out, SWPL isn't really about mocking white people as a whole, it's about mocking white yuppies, and for anyone my age this particular well was drained dry long, long ago. In the 80s and early 90s bookstores devoted entire shelves to books lampooning yuppies, standup comedians had a union rule prohibiting them from going more than 15 consecutive minutes without telling a yuppie joke, and Graydon Carter rode Spy to fame and fortune on the backs of yuppies and Donald Trump.

SWPL takes a different tack than its 80s forebears, and I've got nothing against it. Still, I have a feeling you need to be fairly young to consider this stuff fresh and subversive.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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FANNIE & FREDDIE....TAKE TWO....Last night I linked to "There Goes the Neighborhood," a 2004 piece in the Monthly about the housing bubble. It was written before the subprime market really took off, and among other things, it placed a share of the blame for the bubble on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Was that right? If you're interested in more, check out Paul Krugman today, who essentially argues that F&F aren't really to blame, and then Tanta at Calculated Risk, who argues that although there are other, bigger culprits out there, F&F bear more responsibility for the housing bubble/collapse than Krugman admits. All three pieces together make pretty good reading.

And while we're on the subject, isn't it sort of amazing that we've seen the collapse within a few months of Bear Stearns, IndyMac, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae — and we aren't in even worse shape than we are? In a perverse way, it's a testament to our economy that we can absorb so much catastrophe in such a short period of time without even more pain than we've already suffered. Keep your fingers crossed.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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HEART OF DARKNESS....Q: Which county gave George Bush his biggest absolute plurality over John Kerry in 2004? A: Orange County, California, my hometown. There are smaller counties that gave Bush a bigger percentage of the vote, but in total numbers The OC is the most Republican place in the country.

Q2: Which candidate has raised the most money in Orange County this year, Barack Obama or John McCain? A2: Barack Obama:

On the Balboa Bay Club's wall of its most famous guests, there are photos of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and, of course, the Duke. There are no Democratic politicians. Securely tucked behind the Orange Curtain, Newport Beach is Republican-held territory.

....On Sunday, the Democratic Illinois senator brought his campaign to the center of Republican power and did what he has done better than any other presidential candidate — raise money. Obama would leave with $1.2 million, an organizer estimated. With this infusion, he may exceed the amount GOP candidate John McCain has raised in Orange County.

...."We thought it was symbolic," said [Frank] Barbaro, explaining why the event was held at the Balboa, long a favorite haunt of John Wayne and other Republican icons. "If you're going to take it to them, take it to them where they live."

I haven't heard much about Obama's fundraising lately, so I thought I'd pass this along. Seems like a good omen.

Kevin Drum 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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ONE MILLION....The ACLU, which apparently counts these things a little more accurately than I do, announced a milestone today: the one millionth addition to the terrorist watchlist. The blessed event should happen around 2 pm EDT today. Countdown timer here for the morbidly obsessed.

Kevin Drum 11:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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FREDDIE AND FANNIE....The Washington Post has a pretty good piece today about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and how they managed to avoid some much-needed oversight for the past decade or so. But at the risk of tooting our own horn — ah, who am I kidding, I am tooting our horn here — you could have gotten the basic lay of the land four years ago right here in the Washington Monthly:

By the late 1980s, these two entities, which belong to the category known as Government Sponsored Entities (GSEs), were buying up and reselling 30 percent of new mortgages and packaging the mortgages to be sold as securities.

Fannie and Freddie's market share was limited by their ability to attract investment capital. But in 1989, Congress instituted some modest-seeming technical changes that made Freddie and Fannie much more attractive to investors, and able to draw much more capital. The GSEs used the new capital to buy up every mortgage they could, and banks were only too happy to sell off the mortgage paper.

....This shift has had two crucial, if under-appreciated, consequences. First, in little more than a decade, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have gone from handling one trillion dollars in mortgages to four trillion, with virtually no changes in oversight. Second, their dominance of the mortgage market has profoundly undermined the discipline that once kept housing prices in check.

Once banks knew they could automatically hand off the mortgages they wrote to Fannie and Freddie with basically no risk, the old incentive system dissolved. "Banks and other mortgage lenders are not watching home prices carefully because they rarely hold onto the mortgage paper they create — they just sell it upstream to mortgage investors," John R. Talbott, a housing researcher at UCLA's Anderson School of Business, has argued. "It is a dangerous situation indeed when neither home buyers nor the institutions that finance them are concerned with the ultimate price being paid for the housing asset."

The piece is called "There Goes the Neighborhood," by Ben Wallace-Wells, and it's still worth reading today. It's about a lot more than just Freddie and Fannie — much to Alan Greenspan's discomfort, I'm sure.

Kevin Drum 12:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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July 13, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THAT NEW YORKER COVER....I blogged a few hours ago about Ryan Lizza's Obama piece in the current issue of the New Yorker, but at the time I hadn't seen the cover that went along with it. Now I have, because when I browsed through my RSS feed after dinner it turned out that the entire (liberal) world was pretty seriously pissed off about it.

I had two reactions, myself. To be honest, my first one was that it was kinda funny, a clever way of mocking all the conservative BS that's been circulating about the Obamas.

But at the risk of seeming humorless, that reaction didn't last too long. Maybe it's because this kind of satire just doesn't work, no matter how well it's done. But mostly it's because a few minutes thought convinced me it was gutless. If artist Barry Blitt had some real cojones, he would have drawn the same cover but shown it as a gigantic word bubble coming out of John McCain's mouth — implying, you see, that this is how McCain wants the world to view Obama. But he didn't. Because that would have been unfair. And McCain would have complained about it. And for some reason, the risk that a failed satire would unfairly defame McCain is somehow seen as worse than the risk that a failed satire would unfairly defame Obama.

So: gutless. And whatever else you can say about it, good satire is never gutless.

Kevin Drum 11:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (237)

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THE PARADOX OF OBAMA....Ryan Lizza writes in the New Yorker this week that although Barack Obama has written extensively about himself, "his life in Chicago from 1991 until his victorious Senate campaign is a lacuna in his autobiography." Lizza spends 15,000 words filling in that gap, and concludes with this:

Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago's churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them. "You have the power to make a United States senator," he told Emil Jones in 2003. In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.

Discuss.

Kevin Drum 6:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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NETROOTS NATION....Remember how last year I promised I was finally going to attend YearlyKos in 2008? Well, they changed the name to Netroots Nation, but I'm going anyway. Me and my new MacBook, that is, which will be helping me blog the festivities in real time.

The convention is being held July 17-20 in Austin this year, and you can see the good news on the right: by the time the convention opens on Thursday the south central Texas temps will have plummeted into the low hundreds. However, we'll all be inside the air-conditioned convention center anyway, where you can attend the many fine panels on offer — including two that I'm on:

  • Friday, July 18th, 9:00 am, Ballroom F: "Different Tones and Wider Nets." Or, as I prefer to think of it, "The Fuck Panel." The subject is blogo-shrillness, and my fellow foul-mouthed panelists will be Jesse Taylor, Amanda Marcotte, Lee Papa, Duncan Black (Atrios), and Digby. I plan to argue that, whatever you think of the blogosphere, the MSM isn't foul enough.

  • Saturday, July 19th 10:30 am, Ballroom E: "Hot Topic Panel." I'm not entirely sure what this one is about, but I think it's mainly an excuse to chat about whatever news pops up late enough that there wasn't time to set up a formal session dedicated to it. My fellow hot panelists will be Jeffrey Feldman, Baratunde Thurston, Michael Lazzaro ("Hunter" of Daily Kos), and Pam Spaulding.

Also, Texas heat notwithstanding, I still plan to eat at least a couple of meals in Lockhart, the barbecue capital of the world. (Or so they claim.) There are several places there worth trying, and anyone who wants to make the trek down with me is welcome to join. It's about a 30-minute drive from Austin.

If big slabs of barbecued meat aren't your thing, I understand. But if you're coming to Austin, be sure to look me up regardless. I'll be there for the entire convention and I'm looking forward to meeting lots of people in the flesh for the first time. The convention home page is here if you need more info.

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IRAQ UPDATE....The Washington Post reports that both Iraq and the U.S. have abandoned efforts to negotiate a formal status-of-forces agreement. Instead, they're working on a "temporary operating protocol" that includes target dates for the withdrawal of U.S. troops:

Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, "we are talking about dates," acknowledged one U.S. official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders "are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there. . . . Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever."

...."What we're doing now is more . . . a bridge to have the authority in place so we don't turn into a pumpkin on December 31," the official said. Neither country wants an extension of the U.N. mandate. Iraq has rejected its explicit limits on sovereignty, and the administration believes that a limited extension would only postpone the need for a bilateral accord and potentially leave U.S. troops with "our backs against the wall."

According to U.S. officials, Maliki also hopes that a temporary protocol would circumvent the full parliamentary review and two-thirds vote he has promised for a status-of-forces agreement. "He is trying to figure out, just as we did, how you can set up an agreement between the two and have it be legally binding," one official said, "but not go through the legislative body."

Great. So now public opinion in both countries is so toxic that there's no chance of gaining approval of a formal treaty. Onward.

By the way, you may have missed this a couple of days ago, but on Friday the surge officially ended. The last of the five surge brigades has left the country and we're now back down to 15 combat brigades in Iraq.

Kevin Drum 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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July 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

"FAIRLY SOON"....Is John McCain trying to convince people he's actually Grandpa Simpson's older brother? Here he is in tomorrow's New York Times:

He said, ruefully, that he had not mastered how to use the Internet and relied on his wife and aides like Mark Salter, a senior adviser, and Brooke Buchanan, his press secretary, to get him online to read newspapers (though he prefers reading those the old-fashioned way) and political Web sites and blogs.

"They go on for me," he said. "I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself. I don't expect to be a great communicator, I don't expect to set up my own blog, but I am becoming computer literate to the point where I can get the information that I need."

The Times reports that as he was confessing this, "his aides stared down at their BlackBerries." Probably twittering with their friends to find out what kind of jobs might be opening up at Heritage and Cato on November 5.

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THE IBUPROFEN EPIDEMIC....Today's legal news in the LA Times started soporifically enough:

Schools may not strip-search students for drugs based on an unverified tip, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

Sure. Sounds reasonable. I wonder what this was all about? Answer: Advil.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said an assistant principal at an Arizona middle school violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old by ordering her to be strip-searched. He thought the honor student had prescription-strength ibuprofen....

The girl stood in her bra and underwear while the two officials searched her clothes. Then she was ordered to partially remove her bra, exposing her breasts, and finally told to shake out the crotch of her underwear.

"Hiding her head so that the adults could not see that she was about to cry, Savana complied and pulled out her underwear, revealing her pelvic area," [Judge Kim McLane] Wardlaw wrote. "No ibuprofen was found."

The ruling was 6-5. Two of the dissenters ruled on technical grounds, but three of them concluded, basically, that school administrators can do anything, anytime, including strip searches of 13-year-old girls, no matter how unconvincing the evidence of misbehavior or how remote the possibility of danger is. "Admittedly," they wrote, "ibuprofen is one of the mildest drugs children could choose to abuse. But that does not mean it is never harmful....Importantly, Wilson was not searching for evidence of past ibuprofen use, such as an empty Advil bottle. He was acting on specific information that children in school had pills and were planning on taking them later that day."

Italics mine, all mine. And I'm sure I speak for all of us when I thank God that someone had the courage to take appropriate action against the possibility of teenage girls tossing down an Advil before 5th period. Do we all feel safer now?

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RANTS....This has been a pretty good week for righteous rants in the blogosphere. Highlights include:

  • Brad DeLong on Grover Norquist. Sample: "I am not paid enough to deal with this lying bullshit. I am not paid enough to deal with Grover Norquist and his willful stream of defecation into the global information pool."

  • David Appell on the decline of the blogosphere. Sample: "So I am wondering why I am reading it any more, or why I am even writing meaningless tidbits in this blog (and that's all they are). Or why anyone is reading. Is this seriously the future of this magnificent medium?"

  • Larry Lessig on the immunity hysteria. Sample: "Please, fellow liberals, or leftists, or progressives, get off your high horse(s)....To start this chant of 'principled rejection' of Obama because he is not as pure as we is, in a word, idiotic (read: Naderesque)."

  • Glenn Greenwald on Larry Lessig. Sample: "That is the mentality that has allowed the Bush administration to engage in this profound assault on our national character, to violate our laws at will. Our political and media elite have acquiesced to all of this when they weren't cheering it all on. Those who object to it, who argue that these abuses of political power are dangerous in the extreme and that we cannot tolerate deliberate government lawbreaking, are dismissed as shrill Leftist hysterics."

I'm sure I've missed some good ones. Feel free to leave your favorites of the week in comments.

Kevin Drum 10:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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July 11, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....On the left, Inkblot is admiring my shiny new MacBook and wondering where the mouse is. Shouldn't all computers have mice to play with? On the right, Domino doesn't care. She thinks cats have better things to worry about than foolish human techno-gadgets. Like dinner, for example.

Speaking of techno-gadgets, a nice Bluetooth mouse is the best bet for the MacBook, isn't it? Maybe I'll pick one up after lunch today. What else? I still haven't figured out how to get windows to open full size (or at whatever size I last left them), something that happens automatically in Windows. Anybody know the trick? I'd especially like Finder to open in a full-screen window. And how about image editing software? Is iPhoto any good? I don't need all the album stuff, just a quickie photo resizing and basic editing program. Any recommendations?

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THE REAL WORLD....Steven Pearlstein today:

What started out as a credit crisis and then morphed into a broader financial crisis has finally worked its way into the real economy. That economic downturn — a recession, inevitably — is beginning to wash back on the already weakened financial sector, creating the kind of self-reinforcing vicious cycle that is difficult to control.

....As part of that "de-leveraging" process, households and some businesses are being forced to reduce their indebtedness, either by paying it down or admitting that they can't. But it is in the financial sector, where debt was piled on debt in ever-more complex arrangements, that things have begun to get real dicey. Prices for many credit instruments have collapsed, forcing banks and investment houses to take billions of dollars of real or paper losses. Meanwhile, creating new credit has been dramatically curtailed.

Honest, Jonah, there's nothing "mental" about this. It's as real as taxes. Phil Gramm wasn't being honest, he was being clueless.

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RED LINES....Laura Rozen writes that tensions may be growing between Israel and the United States over how advanced Iran's nuclear program is:

US sources who did not wish to be identified describe a disagreement between the US and Israeli intelligence communities over the timetable of Iran's alleged weaponization and research and development efforts. Nuclear analysts at Livermore nuclear facility crunched the numbers and looked at the information on Iran's centrifuges and concluded that they are sticking to the public estimates in the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program, that forecast Iran could have enough enriched material for nuclear weapons capability in the mid next decade. The Israelis allegedly presented the US with Iranian weaponization evidence that they consider very credible, that the US intelligence community allegedly did not consider credible. Analysts also say Israel and the US are drawing different definitions and red lines about what they consider would be Iran's nuclear "breakout" capability.

Apparently there's been a noticeable uptick in the number of high-level Israeli visits to the U.S. recently, possibly with the goal of persuading a reluctant Bush administration to approve a military strike. David Wurmser, a former aide to Dick Cheney, believes the odds of Israel striking Iran before Bush leaves office are "slightly, slightly above fifty/fifty." Read the rest here.

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MORE GRIPING....A quick note to the world: when you post something on the web, would it kill you to click all your hyperlinks after you hit the Publish button and make sure they actually work? It only takes a few seconds. Thanks.

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iPHONE KVETCHING....OK, I gotta ask: I know the iPhone is very cool, but doesn't it bother all the iPhone-aniacs out there that the actual voice quality of an iPhone sucks because AT&T has a sucky cell network? I was reminded of this once again last week when a friend of mine with AT&T service happened to use my Verizon phone and was astonished at how good the voice quality was.

Of course, I suppose this varies by location, and most of the iPhone blogging I read comes from Washington D.C. Is AT&T service better in the District than in other places? Or what?

Anyway, it just seems like this would be a bigger deal to people. I don't like talking on cell phones all that much to begin with, and it drives me crazy whenever I have to talk to someone with AT&T service. It's like talking through a tin can phone. All the cool features in the world can't make up for that.

UPDATE: Commenters confirm that AT&T voice quality depends on location, just like you'd expect. On the other hand, voice quality in DC is apparently not so hot. On the third hand, David Pogue (whose Mac book is currently teaching me to love my Mac) says of the new iPhone: "The third improvement is audio quality, which has taken a gigantic step forward. You sound crystal clear to your callers, and they sound crystal clear to you. In fact, few cellphones sound this good." However, it's not clear from his article if this is true only if you happen to be in one of AT&T's 3G coverage areas or if it's true everywhere.

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OBAMA vs. THE BRASS....If this Martha Raddatz piece at ABC News is any indication, the military doesn't intend to keep a low profile in this year's presidential election. In fact, they seem to be pretty loudly determined to make clear that they don't like Barack Obama's withdrawal plan one bit:

We spent a day with Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond in Sadr City...."Instead of any time-based approach to any decision for withdrawal, it's got to be conditions-based, with the starting point being an intelligence analysis of what might be here today, and what might lie ahead in the future."

....Asked if he considered it dangerous to pull out if the withdrawal is not based on "conditions," Hammond said, "It's very dangerous. I'll speak for the coalition forces, men and women of character and moral courage; we have a mission, and it's not until the mission is done that I can look my leader in the eye and say, 'Sir, Ma'am, mission accomplished,' and I think it is dangerous to leave anything a little early."

And then there's this about Obama's plan to withdraw one or two brigades per month: "Several commanders who looked at the Obama plan told ABC News, on background, that there was 'no way' it could work logistically." This despite the fact that Maj. Gen. Charles Anderson, on the record, specifically said the Army had the capacity to draw down two-and-a-half brigades a month.

It's gonna be a long summer.

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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WHOLESALE SURVEILLANCE....Former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges explains how the new FISA legislation will handcuff him and his colleagues:

This law will cripple the work of those of us who as reporters communicate regularly with people overseas, especially those in the Middle East. It will intimidate dissidents, human rights activists and courageous officials who seek to expose the lies of our government or governments allied with ours.

....The reach of such surveillance has already hampered my work. I was once told about a showdown between a U.S. warship and the Iranian navy that had the potential to escalate into a military conflict. I contacted someone who was on the ship at the time of the alleged incident and who reportedly had photos. His first question was whether my phone and e-mails were being monitored.

What could I say? How could I know? I offered to travel to see him but, frightened of retribution, he refused. I do not know if the man's story is true. I only know that the fear of surveillance made it impossible for me to determine its veracity.

There are (at least) two issues here. First, under the old law there were ways for reporters to be relatively sure that they could evade surveillance. Use random pay phones, anonymous email accounts, etc. After all, the government can't listen to every conversation, can they? Well, now they can, and reporters' sources know it. It's going to be a lot harder to convince them that it's safe to talk.

Second, reporters who cover terrorism and the Middle East are pretty obvious targets for NSA surveillance since they talk to lots of bad guys. This surveillance is illegal, of course, and under the old FISA law it was hard to get around this because the FISA court had to issue a warrant if NSA wanted to tap the phone of an American citizen. But now? They don't need to directly tap reporters' phones. They're listening to every piece of traffic that goes through American switches and NSA computer software is picking out everything that seems interesting — and no matter what they say, doesn't it seem likely that their algorithms are going to be tweaked to (accidentally! unintentionally!) pick up an awful lot of reporter chatter? It'll eventually be "minimized," but algorithms are infinitely malleable, they're hard for laymen to understand, and they can almost certainly be changed to accomplish the same thing if a judge happens to order modifications. What's more, it hardly matters: the new law allows NSA to hold on to all those minimized conversations forever even if a judge eventually decides the surveillance was illegal.

Welcome to the wholesale surveillance state. Enjoy it.

Kevin Drum 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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MEDICARE HARDBALL....Paul Krugman has a good column today about the vote to cut back on subsidies to Medicare Advantage and use the savings to maintain current payment rates to doctors. In June an identical bill failed by one vote:

But then Democratic leaders decided to play brinkmanship. They let the doctors' cuts stand for the Fourth of July holiday, daring Republicans to threaten the basic medical care of millions of Americans rather than give up subsidies to insurance companies. Over the recess period, there was an intense lobbying war between insurance companies and doctors.

And when the Senate came back in session, it turned out that the doctors — and the Democrats — had won: Senator Kennedy was there to cast the extra vote needed to break the filibuster, a number of Republicans switched sides and the bill passed with a veto-proof majority.

Krugman thinks this show of Democratic backbone bodes well for the chances of passing universal healthcare next year. I don't know that I'd read quite that much into it, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

UPDATE: Jon Cohn agrees with Krugman that this is a good sign, but for a different reason: it pits doctors against insurers, and Democrats with doctors. If this carries over to next year, with doctors deciding that Dems and universal healthcare are preferable to the dubious embrace of the insurance industry, that would be a very big interest group that's made the switch away from the dark side.

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KICKING THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD....The Washington Post reports today that the Bush administration has decided to run out the clock on the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases endanger public welfare:

The decision to solicit further comment overrides the EPA's written recommendation from December. Officials said a few senior White House officials were unwilling to allow the EPA to state officially that global warming harms human welfare...."They argued that this increase in regulation should be on the next president's record," not Bush's, said a participant in the lengthy interagency debate, referring principally to officials in the office of Vice President Cheney, on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, on the National Economic Council and in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

....The proposal that the EPA will unveil today, known as an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, stands in stark contrast to the agency's original Dec. 5 finding — backed up by a lengthy scientific analysis — that global warming is unequivocal, that there is "compelling and robust" evidence that the emissions endanger public welfare and that the EPA administrator is "required by law" to act to protect Americans from future harm.

....The full story of how the finding of public endangerment and Bush's promised greenhouse regulations got sidetracked is still not known. Participants have not disclosed, for example, which White House official ordered an EPA deputy associate administrator to withdraw the finding last December after it was transmitted by e-mail to [Susan] Dudley's office. An official said the person involved was "more senior than the head of OMB," but declined to be more precise.

Well, hell, why so coy? It's a cabinet level position. The only people in the White House senior to the head of OMB are the president, the vice president, and the chief of staff. Anyone want to take a guess about which one was the ringleader in chief of this episode?

Kevin Drum 1:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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July 10, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

LABOR AND THE SUPREME COURT....Nathan Newman, still annoyed, wishes liberal blogs would spend a smidgen less time on handgun and death penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court, and a smidgen more time on labor and business cases:

As I noted last week, state regulations of business lost out in nearly every single case decided [this term], and even the "liberal" Justices joined many if not most of the major decisions. Which reflects modern elite liberalism too well that you can distinguish liberals from conservatives on a death penalty case, but when corporations are trashing workers rights, suddenly the differences can get a little fuzzy.

And what really annoys me is that in the major union decision of the term, Chamber of Commerce v. Brown, one of the most anti-union results in decades, there was essentially zero commentary across the blogs....I can almost guarantee that if in a side comment Obama had said something nice about Chamber of Commerce v. Brown, most of the blogs wouldn't have noticed since they wouldn't know what it was.

Totally guilty here. This was the first I'd ever heard of this case. So I read up on it, and the nickel version is this: California passed a law saying that companies that receive state funds can't use those state funds to "assist, promote, or deter" union organizing campaigns. They can use their own money, but they can't use any of California's money. The 9th Circuit upheld the law, but last month the Supreme Court struck it down.

Unfortunately, there's a big problem here even for bloggers like me who mouth off on all sorts of issues that we don't have a lot of expertise on: I have no idea whether this decision was correct. Sure, I'm generally pro-union, and the California law was also pro-union since it made it harder for companies to run union-busting campaigns. But just because I'm pro-union doesn't mean the Supremes got the law wrong here. In the end, their decision was based on some fairly specialized NLRA statutory law, and I can't even pretend to know anything about this. Basically, they decided that the NLRA overrode state law since, in practice, the regulatory effect of the California law put a big enough burden on corporations that it effectively kept them from speaking out on union issues at all. And the NLRA clearly states that corporations are allowed to speak out on union issues.

So....I don't know. But I will say one thing: this case goes to show, once again, that it's the other branches of government we should really be worried about when it comes to stuff like this. NLRA is statutory law, not part of the constitution, and Congress can modify it any time it likes. The same goes for most business/labor issues decided by the court, which are overwhelmingly based on interpretations of statutory law. The Supreme Court only gets to continually narrow the law if Congress sits by and lets them, and if we elect a better Congress and a better president they can override decisions like this and the Supremes don't get a vote. So let's do that, OK?

Kevin Drum 2:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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OBAMA'S KIDS....Andrew Sullivan goes ballistic about the Obama family interview with Access Hollywood:

I can barely credit that Michelle Obama agreed to this and that Barack Obama went along with it — it's not what they would have done a few months ago. One great aspect of the Obama marriage has been the way in which they appear to have brought up their daughters as very regular girls, down-to-earth, normal and sane. Displaying them in this way was bad judgment and poor parenting. Fame is a toxin. Children deserve to be protected from it as much as they would from lead paint.

I gather that a fair number of people feel the same way, and even Obama himself now says he wouldn't do it again. Am I living in a bubble when I say that I'm just flabbergasted by this reaction?

I mean, have you seen the interview? To call it a puffball is to insult puffballs everywhere. "What do you do that makes your parents mad?" "Do you think it would be cool to live in the White House?" That kind of thing. The kids were probably in front of the camera for about 20 minutes total, and were almost criminally sweet and charming the entire time. I think I might have sprouted a couple of new cavities just watching.

Now, sure: of course young kids should be generally off limits from the campaign press. But does that mean they should literally never be seen on TV? What's the harm? Families are a staple of American politics, people are legitimately curious about what Obama's family is like, and a few minutes with Maria Menounos is the safest, least toxic interview imaginable. It's the 21st century equivalent of one of those carefully staged Life photo spreads from the 50s. Shouldn't we all calm down about this?

Kevin Drum 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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MALIKI AND THE TIMETABLE....Is Nouri al-Maliki's demand for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq just a negotiating ploy? Juan Cole presents a few tidbits to suggest that he's actually quite serious about it:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that the chances that a Status of Forces Agreement will be concluded between Baghdad and Washington have declined substantially....Iraqi politicians have told al-Hayat that the request for a timetable came as a result of pressure from Iraqi Shiite clerical leaders who insisted on an affirmation of the principle of national sovereignty in any agreement signed with Washington.

....AFP points out that the demand for a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops is also a campaign pledge for al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in the upcoming provincial elections. In many provinces, the US troop presence is unpopular.

Salah al-Ubaidi of the Sadr Movement told al-Hayat that the Iraqi government is responding to pressure from the Shiite clerical authorities and from the people. He said he doubted that al-Maliki would actually implement his promise to secure a withdrawal timetable.

I remain relatively agnostic on this issue since I don't read Arabic and don't have any special insight into Iraqi political intrigue, but if this account (and others) are correct we have four reasons to think Maliki might not be kidding:

  • There's substantial public pressure on Maliki to set a timetable for withdrawal.

  • "Iraqi Shiite clerical leaders" = Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is also insisting on....something. However, it's reasonably likely that "affirmation of the principle of national sovereignty" = concrete timetable of some kind.

  • Maliki has made a withdrawal timetable a campaign pledge.

  • The head of the Sadrists, who are responsible for much of the public pressure on Maliki, is essentially taunting him here, suggesting that Maliki talks big but will never stand up to the Americans and get a written promise of withdrawal.

As always, treat this as gossip, the Middle East equivalent of whether Madonna is really getting a divorce. Still, while it might all be kabuki for the rubes, recent events are starting to suggest that the pressure on Maliki to insist on a concrete withdrawal timetable is genuinely intense. This could get interesting.

Kevin Drum 12:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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GATES vs. THE AIR FORCE....The competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman to build a new fleet of aerial tankers for the Air Force has been opened up yet again. That's no surprise after the GAO's June report criticizing the procurement process, but this part is sort of interesting:

At a Pentagon news conference, [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates said the competition would not start all over again, but instead Boeing and Northrop would be asked for amended proposals to deal with the GAO's criticisms. Gates said his office, and not the Air Force, would evaluate the new submissions.

....Gates' decision to strip the Air Force of oversight of the new competition is the latest in a series of high-profile setbacks for the service.

Gates has a real war going with the Air Force, and this is the latest skirmish. There's probably not enough time left in the Bush administration for him to do any real damage to the flyboys, but I wonder how hard he'll try to get his successor to continue the fight? He really seems to have decided that the Air Force is seriously out of control and needs a big-time slapping down.

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CONGRESS AND WAR....James Baker and Warren Christopher have proposed a new piece of legislation that would replace the War Powers Act and clarify Congress's role in declaring war. David Broder approves because this would "signal a healthy change toward bipartisanship in foreign policy."

Maybe. But my first thought when I read about the Baker/Christopher proposal was that the only thing bipartisan about it was that no one in either party would want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Congress, I figured, doesn't want war declaring power. They'd rather pass the buck and then complain about it later. In Slate today, Timothy Noah confirms my skepticism:

There's only one problem. Congress doesn't want to streamline its role in declaring war, because, for all its bluster (not to mention its constitutional responsibility), Congress doesn't want to be held politically accountable for the results. I first became aware of this phenomenon 21 summers ago while covering a House debate on the use of Navy convoys to escort 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf.

....What amazed and shocked me, and moved me to write up the debate for the New Republic, was the unembarrassed manner in which members of Congress declared as their paramount interest the absence of any legislative fingerprints on whatever might result from allowing (or not allowing) the Navy convoys to enter an area of violent conflict. In fact, it was pretty much taken as a given that the War Powers Resolution would not be invoked, not because the president was not complying with it (no president ever has) but because doing so would require Congress to either approve or revoke Reagan's decision.

This is pretty much standard congressional MO, so it doesn't surprise me. If members of Congress could get away with never voting on anything, they'd probably do it.

Kevin Drum 1:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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July 9, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CAP-AND-FADE....Larry Kudlow is crazy, so I'm not sure if he's glommed on to something real here or not. Here's what he says:

I went back last evening and carefully read [John McCain's] 15-page policy pamphlet called "Jobs for America." Here's what I found: There is no mention of cap-and-trade. None. Nada.

....So I picked up the phone and dialed a senior McCain official to make sure these old eyes hadn't missed it. Sure enough, on deep background, this senior McCain advisor told me I was correct: no cap-and-trade. In other words, this central-planning, regulatory, tax-and-spend disaster, which did not appear in Mac's two recent speeches, has been eradicated entirely — even from the detailed policy document that hardly anybody will ever read.

The first part of this is easy to check, and Kudlow is right. The "Lexington Project" section of McCain's website still talks about his cap-and-trade plan (after all, plausible deniability would go out the window if it suddenly disappeared), but his 15-page economic plan doesn't. The plan does refer to the Lexington Project, but cap-and-trade has been excised entirely from its description.

In a way, this isn't any surprise. McCain's cap-and-trade plan was a watered down muddle to begin with, and it was obvious his heart was never in it. Still, it was an important part of his effort to seem moderate and bipartisan on energy and environmental issues, and a lot of people bought into it. So if Kudlow is right, it means that McCain is playing a pretty cynical game here: publicly taking credit for a "maverick" stand against his own party while quietly getting word out to the base that he isn't serious about it. Pretty slick, Senator.

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HILLARY AND FISA....Hillary Clinton has finally taken a public stand on the upcoming FISA legislation. Unlike Barack Obama, she's voting against it:

While this legislation does strengthen oversight of the administration's surveillance activities over previous drafts, in many respects, the oversight in the bill continues to come up short. For instance, while the bill nominally calls for increased oversight by the FISA Court, its ability to serve as a meaningful check on the President's power is debatable. The clearest example of this is the limited power given to the FISA Court to review the government's targeting and minimization procedures.

But the legislation has other significant shortcomings. The legislation makes no meaningful change to the immunity provisions. There is little disagreement that the legislation effectively grants retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies. In my judgment, immunity under these circumstances has the practical effect of shutting down a critical avenue for holding the administration accountable for its conduct.

Take your pick: (a) Hillary is a hero for taking the right position on this, (b) Hillary is just trying to embarrass Barack Obama and pave the way for her eventual resurrection and another run at the presidency in 2012, or (c) she's triangulating, taking the right stand but only doing it at the last minute when passage of the bill is already assured and her opposition won't matter. I figure it's a combination of (a) and (c), but I betcha there's going to be at least a few people who will darkly intimate that it's (b).

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TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS....Is Barack Obama more of a straight-up populist than anyone is giving him credit for? Nathan Newman makes the case.

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OBAMA AND ABORTION....Dana Goldstein is unhappy that Barack Obama isn't talking more about abortion rights in his stump speech:

It's fantastic that Obama is talking about pay equality and the disproportionate way in which poverty and inequality affect women. And if elected, he'll make Supreme Court appointments that will limit the further erosion of abortion rights at the federal level. But Obama is just not using his progressive reproductive justice platform as a talking point, which does raise questions about how he will prioritize those issues if elected.

I don't really get this. Does anyone seriously think that Obama is anything other than solidly pro-choice and will continue to promote strong reproductive health policies once he's in office? His voting record is essentially perfect, he has good stands on all the issues that matter to the largest number of women (Plan B, abstinence-only education, contraception, parental notification, foreign aid, etc. etc.), and there's little question that he'll nominate Supreme Court justices who support Roe v. Wade.

I know that Obama is under the abortion microscope right now thanks to his "mental distress" comment last week, but if anything, this episode demonstrates that there's really no percentage for him in making abortion central to his campaign: the downside from even small divergences from pro-choice orthodoxy is huge, while the upside from loudly confirming his pro-choice bona fides is small. Like it or not, it's politically very savvy to make equal pay his signature gender issue while simultaneously trying to keep a lid on culture war stuff.

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MORE McCAIN-ONOMICS....This is amusing. A couple of Politico reporters called some of the 300 economists who "enthusiastically support" John McCain's "Jobs for America" plan and found that their support was somewhat less enthusiastic than advertised:

In interviews with more than a dozen of the signatories, Politico found that, far from embracing McCain's economic plan, many were unfamiliar with — or downright opposed to — key details. While most of those contacted by Politico had warm feelings about McCain, many did not want to associate themselves too closely with his campaign and its policy prescriptions.

....Constantine Alexandrakis, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, expressed second thoughts about signing. "I would describe myself as an Obama supporter," he explained. "Maybe I shouldn't have rushed into signing the letter."

Maybe he shouldn't have! As for the others, it turns out that they merely signed on to a brief statement of intent (low taxes, low spending, free trade, etc.), not the 15-page number-free plan that McCain released on Monday. So there's no telling how much of his plan they actually support.

Now, this is good sport, to be sure, but there's also a serious side to this stuff. Somebody who's not me ought to start dialing up the other 280+ signatories and find out just how much of McCain's plan they really support. Do they think the current Social Security funding mechanism is a disgrace? Are they in favor of a gas tax holiday? Do they think his multi-trillion tax cut will increase revenues? Inquiring minds want to know.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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McCAIN ON ECONOMICS....Does John McCain really think Social Security is a disgrace? I guess not, but he sure seems to think its funding mechanism is a disgrace, and last night he repeated himself just so we'd all know that it wasn't a slip of the tongue the first time around:

So let's describe it for what it is. They [i.e., younger workers] pay their taxes and right now their taxes are going to pay the retirement of present-day retirees. That's why it's broken, that's why we can fix it.

This is nuts. McCain is talking as if he just figured out that this is how Social Security works and he's scandalized by it. Needless to say, though, this is the way virtually every retirement system in the world works, and it works fine. What's more, if Social Security really does turn out to have a shortfall in future years, it's easily fixed by a very modest combination of higher taxes and reduced benefits — exactly the bipartisan, reach-across-the-aisle solution forged in 1983 that McCain is constantly praising (and that he voted for as a freshman congressman).

But you want something even scarier? In the very same interview, McCain serves up the supply-side full monty to CNN's John Roberts: "You can't get over the fact that historically when you raise people's taxes, revenue goes down," he said. "Every time we cut capital gains taxes, there has been an increase in revenues." The second half of this statement is flat out wrong, and the first half is so wrong that we need a new name for it. This is Jonestown levels of Koolaid drinking.

UPDATE: I see that Hilzoy beat me to this. Click here for a more detailed take on McCain's Grandpa Simpson approach to economics.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE IRANIAN MISSILE LAUNCH....So as of this morning, everyone in the Iran-Israel-United States triangle has (a) demonstrated that they can attack their enemies, (b) blamed the others for starting it, (c) claimed that their own acts have nothing to do with any possible offensive strike, and (d) airily dismissed the possibility of war. It's nice to see that everyone is so dedicated to reducing tensions in the area.

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LEARNING TO LOVE REGULATION....Fed chairman Ben Bernanke gave his support Tuesday to the idea of regulating significant chunks of the financial industry that have mostly operated without supervision until now. Kevin Hall of McClatchy reports:

When the head of the Fed calls for greater financial regulation, echoing Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former Wall Street titan, it's significant. It's also a repudiation of the long-held view that markets alone can best regulate themselves. Whether regulations will be successful is an open question.

"I think it is going to be a turn back towards more regulation, but it's not going to be so easy," said Barry Bosworth, a presidential adviser in the 1970s who's now a senior economics fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center. "I think they've got a dilemma that some of these new financial instruments, and markets, have become so complex. If they continue to let them operate, it's not clear that the regulators will be able to keep up."

...."I think they are going to be forced openly to think about banning some of these instruments," economist Bosworth said. He said that forcing banks to disclose some of their investments may simply lead them to pull out of certain markets.

Italics mine. That's quite a statement, isn't it? Some of their investments are so dodgy that banks would rather pull out entirely than admit they're even involved with them. I'd sure like to know which investments those are.

Kevin Drum 1:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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July 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA ON ACCESS HOLLYWOOD....A query from The Corner:

Weird Choice [Kathryn Jean Lopez]

This is not certainly not the biggest issue of the election year, but why would Barack Obama let his daughters' first interview be with Access Hollywood?

That's an easy one: the kids get to meet Maria Menounos, the questions are guaranteed to be puffballs that stay a million miles away from political controversy, everyone is guaranteed to look good, and the whole thing is going to be aired on a show that reaches millions of viewers who don't ordinarily pay attention to politics. The only wonder of it is that Obama gets all this for free.

But there's a downside: they'll almost certainly follow up with a McCain interview one of these days. Unless he's dumb enough to turn them down, that is.

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IRAQ UPDATE....Nouri al-Maliki's statement to a group of Arab ambassadors yesterday that any security agreement with the U.S. would have to include a timetable for withdrawal of American troops was a little hard to interpret. Was he serious? Just telling Arab leaders what they wanted to hear? Playing for the home crowd? Or what?

Today, his national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, made things clearer:

"We will not accept any memorandum of understanding if it does not give a specific date for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops," Mr al-Rubaie told reporters in Iraq's holy city of Najaf.

"Our stance in the negotiations under way with the American side will be strong," he said, but added that it was proving "very difficult" to set a pullout date.

Needless to say, this is all part of the negotiation process, with Maliki feeling a lot of pressure from Sadrists and others who have successfully used the U.S. occupation as a campaign issue against him. With elections coming up later this year, Maliki doesn't want to get outflanked on his right.

Still, a public statement this unequivocal suggests that Maliki might actually be serious about this. I'd still give it less than 50-50 odds, but it's looking increasingly possible that we might end up with some kind of (nuanced, caveatted) timeline for U.S. troop withdrawals before Barack Obama even takes office.

UPDATE: The BBC report linked above says that "Mr al-Rubaie was speaking after meeting Iraq's top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani" — implying that Sistani may have been responsible for al-Rabaie's newfound hawkishness. Over at American Footprints, Eric Martin links to a report from Alalam that does more than imply:

The Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite leader in Iraq on Tuesday rejected any security agreement with US, stressing such deal will affect the country's sovereignty.

In a meeting with Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq Al-Rubaie who was briefing al-Sistani in Najaf on the progress of the government's security efforts, and the talks on US security deal, Ayatollah said his country will not accept such a security deal which is seeking to justify the illegal presence of US military troops in the war-torn country.

The wording here is odd and no other source has confirmed that Sistani himself said anything about the agreement, so don't take this too seriously yet. Just think of it as gossip worth keeping an eye on. As Eric puts it, "If Sistani says go, we go."

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FISA....Tim Lee is reading about J. Edgar Hoover's steady expansion of domestic surveillance during his long tenure as FBI director:

The most remarkable thing about it is how familiar it all seems. As [Athan] Theoharis tells the story, the FBI has, from its inception, pushed for ever broader authority to spy on Americans. During the first half of the 20th century, it pushed relentlessly for broader statutory authority. When Congress would not give it the authority it wanted, it sought authorization from senior executive branch officials for authorization to break the law. If authorization wasn't fortcoming, the bureau would often do what it wanted anyway and not tell its nominal superiors of its activities.

Tim seems persuaded that Hoover-ish sorts of surveillance aimed at political enemies is probably going on today, but I think Matt Yglesias is closer to the target with this:

These practices, of course, were per se abusive in many ways, and led to further abuses, and then under Richard Nixon led to the revelation of massive abuses and the creations of the safeguards we're now busy unwinding.

I suppose at this point I've become fatalistic about FISA and am mostly just waiting for this whole cycle to repeat itself.

There is, of course, no way to know with certainty what NSA is doing right now, but even if their programs really are tightly focused on international terrorist activity today (and I think they are), the odds are about zero that a gigantic, secret, wholesale surveillance program with poor oversight will remain tightly focused in the future. Even if George Bush's motives are entirely pure, abuse is inevitable under the kind of rules set forth in the FISA legislation currently waiting for Senate approval. A decade or two from now, a 21st century version of the Church Commission will write this story for the second time and our children will wonder how we let it happen. I sort of doubt that we'll have a very good answer.

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DODGING BULLETS....On campaign conference calls, reporters who want to ask questions press *1 and are put in a queue. When their turn comes up, they get to ask their question. But David Corn reports that there are exceptions:

This is not how the McCain campaign does it. When a reporter calls in for a conference call, he or she is asked by an operator to provide his or her name and media outlet. Then when it comes time for questions, there is a long pause — long enough for someone in the campaign to select whom should be called on. This has caused several journalists who have participated in these calls to wonder: is the McCain campaign screening reporters, and, if so, on what basis? A reporter for a progressive media outlet says that he has tried at least half a dozen times to ask a question on a McCain conference call and has had never been selected.

The same has happened to me. No matter how quickly I press *1, I'm never afforded the opportunity to pose a question....In an email, I asked Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's communications director, if the McCain campaign was screening reporters in an attempt to manage the conference calls. She did not reply. I called the campaign's media office and posed the same question. The woman who answered placed me on hold. A few moments later, she told me that a press officer would soon call with an answer. No one ever did.

Right-wing bloggers with softball questions, however ("Can you address...that Barack Obama doesn't have any executive experience at all?") seem to have no trouble being called on. That's some straight talkin'!

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OBAMA'S BUDGET....Peter Nicholas has a front page story in the LA Times today about Barack Obama's budget plans and how they probably don't add up. Fair enough — though the timing is a little odd given the A9 treatment meted out to John McCain's fantastical budget blather from yesterday. I suppose his turn will come eventually.

But despite the story's headline ("Obama's agenda may not add up"), here's what surprised me once I read down to the meat of the story: his agenda actually does come pretty close to adding up. It's really not normal for a candidate's budget numbers to be even in the near ballpark of making sense, but by the Times' own reckoning (chart here) Obama is proposing $130 billion in new spending if every single one of his priorities is signed into law, and probably two-thirds of that is credibly accounted for by rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts, withdrawing from Iraq, auctioning emission credits, and a few other things. So even in the unlikely event that Obama gets every single thing he wants, he'd only be adding a net of $30-40 billion to the federal budget.

So, sure, that means it doesn't add up. But when was the last time we had a presidential candidate who came even that close? Hell, I think McCain's plan, if you put a number to it, would fail to add up by about ten times that amount. Obama's is the most restrained, least pandering budget plan we've seen in a presidential campaign for a very long time.

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MAC UPDATE....I know you're all dying of curiosity, so the answer is: pretty well, thanks. I downloaded NeoOffice, which has crashed twice but has also successfully opened all the Word and Excel files that I transferred over from my desktop Windows box. So that's good. And the book I bought last night explained how to change associations so that Word and Excel files automatically open in NeoOffice instead of the trial version (hah!) of MS Office preloaded on the machine. It wasn't very intuitive, but then, changing associations isn't very intuitive under Windows either.

The two-finger thing for emulating the scroll wheel on the trackpad works great. Thanks for that tip. Windows seem to stubbornly open at their default size no matter how big they are when I close them, but I suppose my book will eventually explain that to me as well. Sleep mode is very impressive. The battery seems to last about four hours, which isn't bad. The keyboard isn't so hot. And I somehow seem to have installed some kind of permanent Firefox "device" on my desktop that has no function I can discern but also can't be gotten rid of. Very odd. Not sure the book is going to help with that one....

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SPATIAL RELATIONSHIPS....Men are better than women at visuospatial skills. The ev psych crowd explains this with a story about men hunting wooly mammoths during the Pleistocene and therefore evolving brain structures that are highly attuned to spatial relationships. Maybe so.

Then again, maybe not. Dave Munger reports that a research team led by Jing Feng was surprisingly successful at closing the visuospatial gender gap with just a few hours of training:

Feng's team recruited 20 new students with no gaming experience. All the students were tested with the same task and a mental rotation task, and placed in pairs scoring similarly. One member of each pair was trained in a violent action game — Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, while the other member was trained with Ballance, a 3-D puzzle game. They played their respective games for ten hours over a four-week period, then tested again.

....While men scored better than women before training, after playing Medal of Honor both women and men improved significantly. The difference between males and females after the training was not significant — the gap between women and men was almost completely erased. Even more impressively, the researchers retested both groups five months later and found that both groups were still performing as well as they had right after training. The group playing Ballance showed no significant gains.

Now, the sample size here is pretty minuscule: five pairs of men and five pairs of women. So it's best not to get too excited by this. Still, as a male with sucky visuospatial skills I find this encouraging. If I buy a PlayStation and use it for an hour a day, will I stop getting lost whenever I'm more than five miles from home?

Via Andrew Sullivan.

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TOMORROW'S CONSPIRACY THEORY TODAY....Barack Obama's campaign plane had a serious problem landing in St. Louis last night:

An inflatable slide in the tail cone of the plane had deployed, making control of the plane tough. "There are hydraulic lines back there," Rosenker says. 'There are control cables that deal with the elevators and other area's of control surfaces for the aircraft, and could potentially make it extremely difficult if not impossible to fly the aircraft."

....This was not Obama's regular campaign plane, which is being overhauled. It was a loaner, having previously been used by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY.

Oh, great. The Hillary conspiracy crowd is going to go nuts over this. It will probably be only a few hours before Drudge reports that Hillary and Bill were seen last month sneaking around the hangar with wrenches in their hands.

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

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By: Kevin Drum

CHART OF THE DAY....Via Nukes & Spooks, this chart from a recent CSIS report is a vivid illustration of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. In addition to the relentlessly rising U.S. casualties shown below, CSIS also reports a steady rise in the number of "security incidents," the total amount of violence, the number of attacks, the number of IEDs and roadside bombs, the number of suicide bombings, and the number of no-go zones under the control of the Taliban and other insurgent groups:

The nature of the incidents has however changed considerably since last year, with high numbers of armed clashes in the field giving way to a combination of armed clashes and asymmetric attacks countrywide. The Afghan National Police (ANP) has become a primary target of insurgents and intimidation of all kinds has increased against the civilian population, especially those perceived to be in support of the government, international military forces as well as the humanitarian and development community.

The good news: most Afghans remain opposed to terrorist activity and a solid majority want the multinational forces to stay in Afghanistan for 3-5 more years or longer.

Kevin Drum 1:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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July 7, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BUDGET MAGIC....Josh Marshall reads about John McCain's plan to balance the budget and is flabbergasted:

The general routine [in] the face of this kind of candidate announcement is that journalists and economists look at the numbers to see if they add up. In most cases, the exercises generates fairly unsatisfying contradictory opinions, with some experts saying one thing and other experts another.

But here's the thing. McCain doesn't have any numbers. None. Not vague numbers of fuzzy math. He just says he's going to do it. Any other candidate would get laughed off the stage with that kind of nonsense or more likely reporters just wouldn't agree to give them a write up.

Sure, but what's a Republican to do these days? They're supposed to be fiscal conservatives, which means they have to pretend to love balanced budgets. So McCain does. Raising taxes is, however, verboten by party fiat, which leaves an aspiring GOP president only two choices: (a) reducing spending and (b) magic. Unfortunately for our hero, proposing actual, concrete budget cuts of any substance is political suicide and he knows it. This leaves magic as the only alternative.

In McCain's case, this seems to take the form of blather about eliminating earmarks (a reform that might be worthwhile but wouldn't actually cut the budget); more blather about "wasteful spending" (the political blowhard's best friend); a bit of nonsense about reducing defense expenditures after we've won all the wars we're fighting (sure, you betcha); and finally, every stumped pol's favorite gimmick: an across-the-board one-year spending freeze. This is a standard last-ditch device that gets hauled out whenever there's no actual plan to do anything serious.

Now, that's all bad enough, but can you imagine how bad it would be if McCain actually had the balls to put numbers to this twaddle? No more magic! Instead it would just be a bad joke.

So McCain really doesn't have much choice. Given the economic pieties imposed on Republicans these days, he's probably picked the least bad option available to him. There are worse things than a few days of mockery, after all.

Kevin Drum 8:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING....A few days ago I wrote a brief post highlighting an EPA report that said new rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars might have a net economic benefit of $2 trillion. Jim Manzi pored through the footnotes and has two complaints about this.

The first and less interesting one is that the EPA boffins assumed a 3% discount rate in their calculation. Unfortunately, the question of what discount rate to use for future benefits is a raging one in the global warming debate, and not one that's really accessible to mere mortals like me. However, I'll concede that 3% might be a little low, which means the benefits here may well be overstated.

Manzi's second complaint is more intriguing:

Even more amusingly, [the report] counts the benefits attributable to the whole world, not just residents of the United States [and] estimates the total economic benefit of avoiding one ton of CO2 emissions to be $40. How much of this the U.S. portion? $1. So more than 95% of the "benefit" in this cost-benefit analysis accrues to people outside the U.S. who aren't paying the freight.

As an exercise in debating points, I get this. Most people don't realize the EPA is counting economic benefits to other countries, and human nature being what it is, will probably lose interest in the GHG rules when they learn that the entire $2 trillion (or whatever) isn't destined for American pocketbooks. It's a nice quickie rebuttal in a Crossfire kind of sense.

Still, there's a reason they call it global warming. Anything we do on the climate front is necessarily going to affect the entire world, and if we count only the benefit accruing to us personally then no action will ever seem worth pursuing. It's the tragedy of the commons, played out on the biggest commons there is.

In fact, it's even worse than that. As everyone knows, global warming is primarily caused by rich, northern economies, but the price is paid disproportionately by poor, tropical economies. Whether we spend money trying to reduce warming in the first place, or spend the money trying to adapt to warming, the bulk of the investment is going to come from the rich countries that emit GHGs and the bulk of the benefit is going to accrue to the poor countries who are most affected by it. And that's as it should be. When we talk about fighting global warming, after all, we're talking about benefitting the entire globe. The United States, as a major contributor to the problem, has an obligation to do something about it even if we only get a portion of the benefit.

Ideally, every country contributes and, eventually, every country benefits. We spend money and get 5% (or less) of the benefit because we have only 5% of the world's population. But other countries do the same and we share in those benefits. Things may or may not turn out this way, but failure is preordained if every country decides that spending money to benefit the rest of the globe is a fool's game.

UPDATE: Sorry, got my discount rate terminology mixed up. Corrected now.

Kevin Drum 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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CHART OF THE DAY.... Via Krugman, this CBPP chart from April does a great job of describing Republican Party economic policy in a nutshell. The Bush expansion may have featured sluggish wage growth, sluggish GDP growth, sluggish investment growth, and sluggish employment growth, but it also featured a terrific, tax-cut driven surge in corporate profit growth! That makes it a success by anyone's measure, right?

John McCain, of course, promises yet more Norquistian tax-cutting goodness, because God knows we don't want to go back to the hell on earth that followed Bill Clinton's modest tax increases of 1993. Much better just to make sure that rich people are taken care of and let the market sort out the rest.

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ATTACK DOGS....Hideously deformed crack addict um, I mean, New York Times media columnist David Carr writes about what to expect when you cover Fox News for a living. Sounds like his previous life might have actually been a bit more pleasant.

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WITHDRAWAL....Does the Iraqi government want us to set a timeline for withdrawal?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki raised the prospect on Monday of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of negotiations over a new security agreement with Washington.

.... In a statement, Maliki's office said the prime minister made the comments about the security pact — which will replace a U.N. mandate for the presence of U.S. troops that expires on December 31 — to Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates.

"In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq," the statement quoted Maliki as saying. "The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal."

Atrios says pithily that this just ain't gonna happen, and I'm inclined to agree. Which is odd, in a way, since both sides in the SOFA negotiations might benefit from it.

On the Iraqi side, Maliki is plainly under pressure from the Sadrites and others to make it clear that American troops won't be hanging around forever. Public sentiment on this point is fairly strong, if a bit fuzzy, and Maliki would be politically well served by an agreement that sets some kind of credible timeline for withdrawal. This is especially true since Maliki seems to be increasingly convinced that the Iraqi army is pretty hot stuff and maybe doesn't need much American support going forward anyway.

On the U.S. side, there's Barack Obama waiting in the wings. He says he's going to start drawing down troops immediately and finish the withdrawal within 16 months, and even the famously out-to-lunch George Bush must be at least considering the strong possibility that Obama is going to win in November and then do what he says he's going to do. So what's the best strategy for both sides here?

Answer: a "timeline" for withdrawal, but one that's slower and more flexible than the one they think Obama will impose. Say 36 months, with conditions and caveats. Then, when January rolls around and Obama takes office, he has to decide: is it worth a political donnybrook not to impose a withdrawal plan where none currently exists, but merely to speed up a withdrawal plan that's already in place?

Maybe not. Both Bush and Maliki, therefore, might be shrewd to negotiate a withdrawal plan of their own: Maliki for electoral reasons and Bush in order to get the best deal he probably can under the circumstances. I wouldn't say this is a likely scenario or anything, but it's a possible one. It only works, however, if Obama remains firm on his own withdrawal plan. Otherwise, what's the point?

Kevin Drum 11:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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MEDICARE ADVANTAGE....Thanks to an obsolete formula embedded in the current law, doctors who see Medicare patients had their fees cut by 10% on July 1. The House has passed a bill to restore the cut, but the Senate has yet to follow suit. Robert Pear explains why:

[President] Bush and many Republicans oppose the bill because it would finance an increase in doctors' fees by reducing federal payments to insurance companies that offer private Medicare Advantage plans as an alternative to the traditional government-run Medicare program.

Insurance companies and the White House argue that the bill would hurt beneficiaries who rely on private Medicare plans. America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, ran television advertisements last week, urging Congress to "stop cuts to Medicare Advantage."

Indeed. This would be the same Medicare Advantage that supposedly harnesses the power of the free market to operate more efficiently, yet still requires sizeable subsidies because it costs considerably more per person than good 'ol big government Medicare. What's at issue here is cutting those subsidies so that private Medicare costs only a little bit more than standard Medicare instead of the whole lot more that it costs now.

But that's not in the cards. Forcing private insurers to operate as efficiently as the federal government is apparently asking too much of the GOP's free market acolytes. Better to cut doctors' fees instead.

Kevin Drum 12:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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July 6, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MY DAY....Blogging was light today for two reasons, one obvious and one not. The obvious one, of course, was today's 7-hour Wimbledon marathon. As you all know, I'm totally in the tank for Roger Federer, so I was sad to see him lose his chance to be the first player to win six in a row in the modern era. Still, if he was going to lose, this was the way to do it. Tennis doesn't get much better than this.

The nonobvious reason is that I decided, almost on a whim, to buy a MacBook today. Call it a semi-whim, anyway. My requirement for PC functionality has declined over the years, and I finally got curious enough about how well Macs really work these days to fork over a thousand bucks to Micro Center and get one. It's mainly going to be my travel machine, so its requirements are minimal anyway. So far, its battery has been charged, it's made a tentative connection with my wireless network (the tentativeness is the network's fault, not the Mac's), Firefox is installed and my bookmarks have been successfully transferred, and I'm transferring all my music over as I type. Not sure what I'll do next. I suppose I ought to install some kind of Office package in case I have a pressing need to use a spreadsheet on the road, but which one? OpenOffice? Something else?

Anyway, no real complaints so far except for the obvious one: we Windows users really miss Windows mouse functionality when we use a Mac. Steve Jobs' obsession with UI purity can really be a pain in the ass sometimes.

So that's been my day. How was yours?

Kevin Drum 11:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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July 5, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From George Bush, on the passing of Jesse Helms:

Jesse Helms was a kind, decent, and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called "the Miracle of America." So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July.

Uh huh. I guess Bush must figure that even 10% of the black vote is 10% more than the GOP needs. This should just about do the trick of getting it down to zero.

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MOSQUE AND STATE....Juan Cole says that "the Iraqi government has decided one of the contentious issues that was holding up the provincial elections law." The AP reports:

The Iraqi government on Thursday ordered that campaign materials in upcoming provincial elections can only feature pictures of candidates, in an apparent attempt to keep followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from using his image to court voters.

The decision would also affect other Shiite parties that often use pictures of popular clerics in political campaigns....Shiite politicians flooded the country with posters of the country's main Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and others during elections in 2005, capitalizing on their prestige to win power.

Needless to say, I had no idea this was even an issue at all, let alone an especially contentious one. Consider me educated. Still, in the same way that McCain-Feingold mostly just had the effect of shifting American election money from campaigns to "independent" 527s, I have a feeling this law might not have much practical effect either. I'm pretty sure that Team Sadr and Team Maliki will manage to find ways to get all the appropriate images lining all the appropriate streets.

Still, progress is being made. And who's against progress?

Kevin Drum 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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July 4, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

INDEPENDENCE DAY CATBLOGGING.... I don't suppose it will come as any surprise to learn that (a) housecats aren't especially patriotic critters and (b) housecats don't cooperate especially well with efforts to pose them. So after several abortive attempts at patriotic photo ops with the furballs, this was my final effort: I filled up a patriotic lemonade pitcher with cat food and tried to get a picture of them eating out of each side. As you can see, even that didn't work so well. In an inversion of our usual morning routine, Domino stuffed her face in the pitcher first and growled ominously whenever Inkblot got close. Result: Mr. Alpha Cat backed off and patiently waited his turn. But at least it's all in a nice, patriotic motif, even if they did refuse to wear flag lapel pins or hold their paws over their hearts.

And with that, I'm off for the day. Lots of craziness this week both in the blogosphere and in real life, and I need a break. It's burgers and brats for me and mine tonight, and I'm going to try my best not to think too deeply about what patriotism really means. As far as I'm concerned, we're all tremendously lucky to live in one of the freest countries on earth, and that means everyone is free to love it in whatever way suits them best. So to civilians and soldiers, citizens and aspirants, and Democrats and Republicans, have a nice 4th one and all.

Kevin Drum 11:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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July 3, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S WORDS....Two press conferences, three headlines:

The story is the same in all three cases: Obama held a press conference in the morning saying, as usual, that he planned to bring our troops home from Iraq in 16 months, but leaving himself a bit of wiggle room based on issues of troop safety and political stability. This "fueled speculation" that he was changing his position, so he held a second press conference in which he said:

Let me be as clear as I can be. I intend to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war — responsibly, deliberately, but decisively. And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades a month, and again, that pace translates into having our combat troops out in 16 months' time.

So who got the headline right?

On another note, it turns out that the "speculation" about Obama's position was "fueled" by none other than the John McCain campaign. All's fair in love and politics, so whatever. But check out exactly what the McCain campaign said:

"Today, Barack Obama reversed [his] position, proving once again that his words do not matter," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said in a statement.

"Once again his words do not matter." Have the McCain people used this exact formulation before? I ask because it seems very shrewd. After all, Obama's most famous trait is the power and quality of his rhetoric. His words. To criticize him in exactly this way — "his words do not matter" — is to launch an attack directly at his strongest point.

That's very Rovian, isn't it? And Rove disciple Steve Schmidt took over the McCain campaign just yesterday. Apparently he works fast.

Kevin Drum 9:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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PLANNING FOR 2009....The Iraqis are pushing back on the idea of a long-term American presence:

Declaring that there will not be "another colonization of Iraq," Iraq's foreign minister raised the possibility on Wednesday that a full security agreement with the United States might not be reached this year, and that if one was, it would be a short-term pact.

....At a news conference in Baghdad, the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told reporters that some headway had been made, but that negotiators were deadlocked over issues like the extent of Iraqi control over American military operations and the right of American soldiers to detain suspects without the approval of Iraqi authorities.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is feeling stressed:

The U.S. military's top officer warned Wednesday that an Israeli airstrike against Iran would make the Middle East more unstable and could add to the stress on overworked American forces in the region.

...."Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful for us," [Adm. Mike Mullen] said, referring to the prospect of a direct clash with Iran while fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable."

And of course Mullen has already said that Afghanistan is going sideways and there's not too much he can do about it because all his troops are in Iraq. Call me naive, but this all points in one direction: start drawing down our presence in Iraq, stay calm on the Iran front, and put more effort into stabilizing Afghanistan and wiping out the remaining remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Who's with me?

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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MORE JOB LOSSES....Oil prices keep rising, automobile sales have cratered, the credit markets look perilously close to going into crisis again, the service sector shrunk in June, and today the Labor Department announced job losses for the sixth month in a row:

Nonfarm payrolls fell by 62,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. May payrolls also retreated by 62,000 jobs, representing an revision from the initial estimate of 49,000. April was revised to a decline of 67,000, versus the 28,000 previously reported.

...."Labor market weakness persisted in June," said Keith Hall, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Non-farm payroll employment continued to trend down and has fallen by 438,000 in the first half of the year, an average of 73,000 per month."

The unemployment rate stayed the same, however. You only get counted as unemployed if you're actively looking for a job, and more and more people are just giving up. We may or may not technically be in a recession, but it sure feels an awful lot like one.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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NIXON vs. BUSH....Matt Yglesias, riffing off a David Broder column, wonders why the public demanded Richard Nixon's resignation three decades ago but hasn't risen up with the same fury to demand George Bush's:

I wasn't alive in 1973-74. I have a vague sense that at that time America's elites operated with some sense of conscience and dignity, and it was taken for granted even among Republican leaders that one couldn't just break the law. These days, a misleading deposition taken in the course of a frivolous lawsuit aimed at avoiding the revelation of an affair is a grave national crisis, but it's taken for granted that only a lunatic would believe that Bush or any of his henchmen should be held accountable in any way for repeated violations of the law. I don't really know what changed, or why David Broder and other gatekeepers of elite consensus can't see that something's gone wrong here, but I'm not happy about it.

I agree that the David Broders of the world have been far too sanguine about the abuses of the Bush administration. At the same time, the difference here really is pretty obvious. Nixon broke the law repeatedly for purely political purposes: to help his friends, punish his enemies, and keep tabs on domestic groups he happened to personally dislike. There was no ideological dispute about the value of what Nixon did: once it became clear that he had actually done the stuff he was accused of, liberals and conservatives alike agreed that he had to go.

Obviously that's not the case this time around. So far, anyway, there's no evidence that George Bush has done anything wrong for purely venal purposes. He approved torture of prisoners and violated FISA because he genuinely thought it was necessary for national security reasons after 9/11 — and unfortunately, lots of people agreed with him at the time and continue to agree with him today. I too wish there were a broader consensus that Bush has acted illegally and ought to be held accountable, but the fact that he hasn't met Nixon's fate doesn't really say all that much about how tolerant we are of executive lawbreaking. Ideological disputes are simply a different kettle of fish than personal vendettas.

UPDATE: Apologies for the sloppy writing. Matt was writing about torture and FISA, and that's what I was responding to when I said Bush hadn't done anything wrong for venal purposes. I only meant to be referring to the lawbreaking surrounding those two issues, not literally everything Bush has done. The U.S. Attorney scandal, among others, quite plainly has a fair amount of venality associated with it.

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MILEAGE STANDARDS....Remember that EPA report about greenhouse gases that the White House refused to open its email to read? I missed this when it was first posted a few days ago, but the report's conclusions have a little more punch when you see them in the original. So here they are, courtesy of the Wonk Room:

"Far outweigh," by the way, turns out to mean about $2 trillion. Not bad for a bunch of tree huggers.

Kevin Drum 11:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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BIBLICAL....The latest calamity to hit the Beijing Olympic Games is a plague of locusts. Seriously.

Kevin Drum 11:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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UNDERINSURED....Ezra Klein reminds us that we don't merely have lots of people in the United States who lack health insurance completely, we also have lots of people who do have health insurance but don't have enough of it:

The Commonwealth Fund estimates that about 14 percent of the population was underinsured in 2007. That sounds about right, and it's a useful reminder that insurance isn't binary, wherein you have it or you don't. Rather, it exists on a continuum, with some folks being totally insured, some folks being half insured and half uninsured, some folks being totally uninsured but having access to emergency rooms, and so forth.

This is how American rationing actually manifests. Canada might have waiting times for non-essential treatments, but we have cost barriers to all manner of treatments. Some can't afford the care, and so they go into debt, or have to sell their home. Others can't afford the care, and so they never get it. We count that waiting time as zero rather than infinity, but that's just a bad faith numbers trick meant to make us feel better.

But a good faith effort to count real waiting time would conclude that lots of Americans have to wait a long time for medical care. And we can't have that, can we? After all, we have the best healthcare in the world.

Kevin Drum 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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YOU AND YOUR CELL....PART 2....Over at American Street, Mark Adams argues that we shouldn't get too bent out of shape about the federal government tracking our location via our cell phone. After all, they can tail us with human agents perfectly legally, and this is just a technologically advanced version of the same thing.

I figure a lot of people probably feel the same way, so I think it's worth pushing back a bit on two fronts. First front: there's a difference here in where you can be tracked. A human agent can only follow you around in public spaces, while a cell phone signal can be tracked anywhere, even in private compounds or inside buildings. That makes it considerably more intrusive.

Second, there's the question of when a quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference. Human tails have an enormous practical limitation: because they're difficult, expensive, and fallible, there can only be a very small number of them happening at any given time. Cell phone tracking, however, is automatic: it's technically feasible to track every cell phone in the country 24/7 and keep the tracking information in a database forever if the government so desires. In theory this is just human tracking multiplied by a billion, but in practice it's an entirely new addition to the surveillance state. Do we think this should be legal?

I don't. I'm not making a constitutional argument here, and I suspect that, in fact, the Supreme Court would find this kind of thing acceptable. Pen registers don't require a warrant, for example, because the Supremes decided some time ago that when you dial a number you're voluntarily letting the phone company know what number you're dialing. This means you have no reasonable expectation of privacy: if you're willing to let the phone company know what numbers you're dialing, you have to figure that law enforcement has access too.

The Supremes have also ruled once or twice on cases that take on my quantitative vs. qualitative argument, and they haven't been kind to it. If technology makes access to public information a million times easier, thus fundamentally changing its character, that's too bad. Public information is public information.

But that doesn't change my opinion. I don't think law enforcement should be allowed to build a permanent database of all of our movements, and if tracking this stuff without a warrant is legal, then eventually that's what they're going to do. The Department of Justice ought to be willing to tell us its policies in this area, and Congress ought to pass legislation regulating it. Your mileage may vary, but I'm with the ACLU and the EFF on this.

Kevin Drum 10:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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YOU AND YOUR CELL....All modern cell phones are equipped with GPS-like capability that allows your location to be tracked within a few meters at all times. Question: does the federal government have access to this tracking information without a warrant? The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information request to find out but the feds refused to respond. So now they've joined with the EFF and filed a lawsuit:

The ACLU filed the FOIA request in November following media reports that federal officials were using Americans' cellular phones to pinpoint their locations without a warrant or any court oversight, the groups said. Some government officials at the time said they did not need probable cause to obtain tracking information from mobile phones. In addition, the reports said some federal law enforcement agents had obtained tracking data from wireless carriers without any court oversight.

...."Signing up for cell phone services should not be synonymous with signing up to be spied on and tracked by the government," she said in a statement.

....The ACLU and EFF are seeking documents, memos, and guides regarding policies and procedures for cell-phone-based tracking of individuals. The groups also want to know the number of times the government has sought cell-phone location information without court permission and how many times it has obtained the information.

That cell phone tracking should indeed require a warrant hardly seems disputable. That the Department of Justice refuses to explain its policies hardly seems defensible. Good luck to the ACLU and the EFF.

Via TalkLeft.

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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July 2, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

COLOMBIA?....You know, I was sort of wondering why John McCain is visiting Colombia today, and apparently I'm not the only one. Dan Balz is curious too:

Is his commitment to free trade so deep that he needed not one foreign trip (to Canada last month) but two foreign trips to make that clear to people? Is the issue of free trade so central to the outcome of the election that he intends to make it the centerpiece of his campaign strategy?

The answers — no and no — are evident just from posing the questions. Even McCain seems defensive about his short foray into Latin America....Before host Robin Roberts could even pose a question, McCain was explaining why he was there and what he was dong and that he would be home soon. He said he would be in Colombia only one day, in Mexico only one day and that the issues of free trade and drug trafficking were important enough to warrant his visit.

This is followed by several hundred words that amount to a verbal shrug of the shoulders. Oddly, though, there's not even a brief mention of this. Peculiar, isn't it?

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RELEASE THE FICO!....I demand that Barack Obama release his FICO score. If he doesn't, he risks losing the trust of all hardworking, mortgage-paying heartland Americans who paid average rates for their mortgages because they had average FICO scores.

Seriously, folks, I know it's summer, but has the beltway press corps gone completely batshit insane? I usually don't bother posting on outrage-of-the-day stuff because I find it kind of boring, but this week has already been one for the books and it's only half over. First we had the inane Wes Clark pseudo-scandal (note to pundits: Clark was echoing Bob Schieffer's words because that's how people usually respond to questions) and now we have a complete non-scandal over the fact that people with high incomes generally qualify for slightly better mortgage rates than regular working stiffs. Is there something in the water back in DC, or what?

Kevin Drum 11:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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SPYING ON IRAQ....You'll be unsurprised to know that American spy satellites are heavily targeted on Iraq. What might surprise you, though, is that we recently decided to increase our surveillance dramatically in order to keep a closer eye on what the Iraqi army is up to:

The stepped-up surveillance reflects breakdowns in trust and coordination between the two forces. Officials said it was part of an expanded intelligence effort launched after American commanders were surprised by the timing of the Iraqi army's violent push into Basra three months ago.

....Military officials and experts said the move showed concern by U.S. commanders about whether their Iraqi counterparts would follow U.S. guidance or keep their coalition partners fully informed.

"It suggests that we don't have complete confidence in their chain of command, or in their willingness to tell us what they're going to do because they may fear that we may try to get them not to do it," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a website about intelligence and military issues.

Actually, the Iraqis should be pleased. When we start spying on a country's military movements, it means we're taking them seriously. Iraq is now in the big leagues.

On a more serious note, this raises fresh questions about just how successful last March's Basra mission really was. This story confirms in a concrete way that the U.S. was taken off guard by the offensive in Basra, wasn't happy about it, and doesn't want it to happen again. If it had really turned out as well as everyone is now saying, would we have had such a sharp reaction to it?

Kevin Drum 11:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN UPDATE....Iran is on a charm offensive. Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — which makes him someone with actual authority — basically told president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday to lay off the bluster for a while and let the adults talk. He then went on to say that Iran was seriously interested in the proposal presented last month by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. From the LA Times:

"Americans wanted Iran not to accept Solana," Velayati told the hard-line daily newspaper Jomhuri Islami. "Therefore our interests imply that we should embrace Solana."

....The U.S. and Israel "are seeking a pretext to show the world that Iran does not want negotiation," Velayati said. "We think now at this juncture, we can negotiate," he said. "We should pay attention . . . keep on negotiating with every single European country."

At the same time, Iran's foreign minister told reporters that he was also warmly disposed toward the Solana proposal:

The unusually positive remarks by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to a small group of reporters raised hope that a negotiated solution can be found to defuse the crisis.

....During a 90-minute luncheon at Iran's United Nations mission, Mottaki dismissed the growing speculation that Israel or the United States will strike at Iran's nuclear facilities during President Bush's last six months in office. He described news reports to that effect as part of a long-running campaign of "psychological warfare."

The chance that Israel will attack Iran "is almost nil," Mottaki said. As for a U.S. strike, he said there was little public support in this country for a new conflict. "The consequences of such an attack cannot be predicted," he said.

Mottaki apparently also indicated that Iran would consider allowing the U.S. to establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran if we approved Iran's request for direct flights between Tehran and New York. On the other hand, he declined to say anything specific about whether Iran was willing to halt its uranium enrichment program.

As usual, this could all mean anything or nothing. Iran has their equivalents of John Bolton and Barack Obama too, and the opacity of their politics is legendary. Still, an opening is an opening. Best to at least give it a try.

Kevin Drum 1:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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By: Kevin Drum

LEARNING FROM THE BEST....The New York Times reports today that many of the coercive interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo Bay were taken from a chart in a 1956 Air Force study called "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War":

The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of "coercive management techniques" for possible use on prisoners, including "sleep deprivation," "prolonged constraint," and "exposure."

....The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.

....The only change made in the chart presented at Guantánamo was to drop its original title: "Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance."

Unfortunately, Drudge is reporting that one of Barack Obama's boyhood friends says that Obama once allowed an American flag to touch the ground and didn't seem very concerned about it, so we really don't have time for this kind of thing. Priorities, people.

[UPDATE: Just kidding about the flag thing, folks. The fact that it sounds sorta plausible in the wake of the Wes Clark pseudo-outrage tells you something, though. Sarcasm is getting harder and harder these days.]

In case you're curious, the chart is below the fold. The full 1956 article is here.

Kevin Drum 12:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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July 1, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CHART OF THE DAY.... This one is a bit of navel gazing. It comes from Henry Farrell et. al. and shows the ideological makeup of the audience for various news outlets. As you can seem "blog readers are politically very polarized. They tend to clump around either the 'strong liberal' or the 'strong conservative' pole; there aren't many blog readers in the center. This contrasts with consumers of various TV news channels."

This is hardly a surprise, but still sort of interesting to see in this kind of graphical format. In other not-too-surprising news, there's this:

Blog readers seem to exhibit strong homophily. That is to say, they overwhelmingly choose blogs that are written by people who are roughly in accordance with their political views. Left wingers read left wing blogs, right wingers read right wing blogs, and very few people read both left wing and right wing blogs. Those few people who read both left wing and right wing blogs are considerably more likely to be left wing themselves; interpret this as you like.

The full paper is here.

Kevin Drum 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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By: Kevin Drum

PATRIOT ACT....Over at The Corner, Kathryn Jean Lopez is vexed:

The front page of the Washington Post (yes, I sometimes read paper newspapers) has the headline "Obama Fiercely Defends His Patriotism." Isn't there a problem when a candidate has to "fiercely defend" something so fundamental? Shouldn't a candidate for president and his advisers and supporters exude such a thing?

Yeah, lack of exudiness must be the problem. It couldn't possibly be because conservative writers routinely question Obama's patriotism, could it? Like this guy:

Barack Obama has a patriotism problem that even Monday's flag-waving trip to Independence, Mo., can't squelch.

That's NRO colleague Jonah Goldberg, who explained Obama's "problem" at great length in USA Today and then — just in case anyone missed it — excerpted his explanation a few posts down from Lopez in The Corner. Too bad Obama doesn't exude patriotism, though.

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

GROUP DYNAMICS....Megan McArdle comments on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of gender relations:

I find it odd to realize that most men don't observe something that is obvious to every woman I know: that there is a competitive male dynamic to groups that is completely different from the way female groups act. They don't know, of course, because unless the group is overwhelmingly female, the dynamic of any mixed group always defaults to male, with women fading back into supporting conversational roles. Maybe it's the kind of thing you can only observe by contrast to the extremely anti-competitive nature of female groups.

The easiest way to put it (and this is hardly original) is that men in groups are focused on their role within the group. Women in groups are focused on the group. Men gain status by standing out from the group; women gain status by submerging themselves into it — by strengthening the group, often at the expense of themselves.

I agree that group dynamics typically default to a male model if even a few men are around. However, I don't think I agree that women generally gain status by submerging themselves into groups. They gain status the same way men do: by carving out a high-status role for themselves. They just do it differently. Discuss.

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MISSING W....In the LA Times today, Noam Levey calls attention to John McCain's flip-floppy record on energy issues:

McCain's record of tackling energy policy on Capitol Hill shows little of the clear direction he says would come from a McCain White House. Instead, the Arizona senator has swerved from one position to another over the years, taking often contradictory stances on the federal government's role in energy policy.

At times he has backed measures to ease restrictions on oil drilling off the coast and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Other times he has voted to keep them.

He has championed standards to require that automakers make vehicles more fuel-efficient, yet opposed standards to require that utilities use less fossil fuel by generating more power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. [Etc. etc.]

It's nice to see this kind of thing in the mainstream press. But at the risk of seeming churlish, Levey's story is also a pretty good example of how McCain routinely gets the benefit of the doubt even when his chameleon-like record is being exposed to the light of day.

The unasked question here is why McCain's positions change so much. The very first person quoted on this point is McCain's own advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who says his boss is just being pragmatic: "Sen. McCain is interested in getting results." On the other side, the best Levey could do is one guy who calls McCain's record "sporadic" and another who says his support for subsidies "seems to contradict his record."

That's hard hitting stuff! The rest of the story is just a dry recitation of McCain's record, written in a way that often makes it hard to figure out exactly what McCain's flip-flops are, let alone why he's changed his positions on so many things. And that's odd, because eventually stories like these always allude darkly to interest groups that need to be appeased or donors who need to be pandered to. But not this one. There's not even a hint of a suggestion that McCain's motivations might be politically based. You'd have to be a considerable sleuth to put two and two together and make the connection that McCain's policies — both the ones that have changed and the ones that haven't — virtually always favor existing energy interests.

Without motivation, these stories just don't stick. That motivation is usually front and center when the subject is John Kerry or Barack Obama, but it's missing in action when the subject is John McCain. Funny that.

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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By: Kevin Drum

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS....Matt Yglesias calls Andrew Bacevich's op-ed in the Boston Globe today "brilliant," and I want to dissent from that. The whole thing only takes a minute or two two to read, but here the two key paragraphs:

Throughout the long primary season, even as various contenders in both parties argued endlessly about Iraq, they seemed oblivious to the more fundamental questions raised by the Bush years: whether global war makes sense as an antidote to terror, whether preventive war works, whether the costs of "global leadership" are sustainable, and whether events in Asia rather than the Middle East just might determine the course of the 21st century.

....By showing that Bush has put the country on a path pointing to permanent war, ever increasing debt and dependency, and further abuses of executive authority, Obama can transform the election into a referendum on the current administration's entire national security legacy. By articulating a set of principles that will safeguard the country's vital interests, both today and in the long run, at a price we can afford while preserving rather than distorting the Constitution, Obama can persuade Americans to repudiate the Bush legacy and to choose another course.

My dissent isn't because I think Bacevich is wrong. It's because what he's saying is so obvious as to be almost banal.

That is, it's so obvious it ought to be banal. But even now, nearly seven years after 9/11, instead of framing the question the way Bacevich does — the obvious way — we still allow people like George Bush and John McCain to frame it their way. They've created a looking glass world in which they pretend that the rest of us are naive because we allegedly think terrorism is merely a law enforcement problem, and everyone sleepily nods along as if that's a sensible way of looking at the question.

But it's not. Bacevich's common sense formulation is both obvious and correct. Maybe that makes it brilliant too. But if it is, Barack Obama's job is to get us all to rub the sleep out of our eyes and turn it back into a banality. He's got four months.

Kevin Drum 10:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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