US Attorney General Eric Holder is prepared to appoint a special prosecutor to launch a criminal investigation into alleged CIA abuse of suspects detained during the war on terror. But officials familiar with Holder's plans told the Los Angeles Times that the probe will not investigate the authors of the so-called "torture memos" or Bush administration officials who knew about the use of interrogation techniques like waterboarding, which both Holder and President Obama have said constitute torture.

Instead, the investigation would focus on CIA operatives who went beyond interrogation tactics approved by the Bush administration, including cases of excessive waterboarding, unexplained deaths, and one incident in which an interrogator used a gun to get information from a detainee.

Opinions were divded among human rights and civil liberties groups about the merits of this approach. On the one hand, Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, thinks that a probe that lets the authors of the interrogation policies off the hook would be more destructive than constructive.  "An investigation that focuses only on low-ranking operators would be, I think, worse than doing nothing at all," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Gallup has a new poll out today suggesting that all the recent talk of death panels and socialized medicine has not noticeably dented Obama's popularity: his approval rate is sitting at 63 percent nationally, with the most enthusiastic locales being DC (92 percent) and Hawaii (75 percent.)

More interesting, though, is the fact that that the states down the bottom of the poll also seem to think Obama's doing an okay job. In Oklahoma, for instance, where Sen. Jim Inhofe thinks Obama is "un-American" and Rep. John Sullivan has concerns about the validity of his birth certificate, Obama gets the thumbs up from 53 percent of the population. In Kansas, where Obama is contemplating sending the remaining Guantanamo detainees to be held at Fort Leavenworth, potentially indefinitely, he's polling at 55 percent. In fact, there are only two states where his approval rating dips under 50 percent—Wyoming (46 percent) and Alaska (49 percent).

In other words, as the health care debate heats up, Obama is still in a pretty strong position. But will he take advantage of that, or play it safe?

Quote of the Day

From an editorial in Investors Business Daily about the pitfalls of healthcare reform:

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

Ditto for the Prince of Wales, no doubt. Via Bookman/TPM/Atrios.

The Crazy Base

Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner:

If you were a Democratic leader who wanted to lay the groundwork to cut Republicans and moderate Democrats out of the legislative process, wouldn't you be portraying the critics of your health-care legislation as unreasonable racist nuts right about now? In September you could say that you really wanted to work with Republicans but unfortunately they are all being intimidated out of working for the common good by their crazy base. All the more reason for Republicans to do what they should be doing anyway: to make the case against the legislation in as measured, civil, and sensible a way as we can.

Well, it's a nice thought.  A little late, though.  I can't wait to see if any of Ponnuru's fellow Cornerites take the bait.

I was so stoked about Organizing for America's Office Visit for Health Care Reform, I signed up for the first available appointment. Too bad it sucked. 

In case you somehow missed the email, Organizing for America—the vestigial remnants of President Obama's massive net-roots organization—is SPAMing the flock to visit their senators during the August recess in support of health care reform. The plan is geniusly sticky and simple. You click the link, pick a time you'd like to visit, and print out a map to your senator's local office, plus a two-page form to record your visit, and viola, CHANGE. It isn't supposed to be a violently disruptive town-hall meeting, just a group of average, level-headed Americans putting democracy into action through basic civic engagement. Totally rad. Even better, tens of thousands of other people had already signed up to do the same thing, according to Organizing for America. The prospect had me genuinely excited, which is rare for me.  

In general, I do my best to avoid overt displays of political activism.  But health care reform was my one big issue, the one I was ready to man the trenches for. When I was eight, the day I was supposed to start 3rd grade, I was struck by a rare illness that left me paralyzed from the waist down. That was September 1994, the same month that President Clinton's ambitious healthcare plan gasped it's last breath and died, crushed by reactionary fearmongering, red-baiting, and corporate-sponsored insanity. I'm 23 now, and  the current debate feels like deja vu. 

 

 

Matt Yglesias says it's unlikely we can effectively rein in stratospheric compensation levels in the finance industry.  The guys who work on Wall Street are just too smart: "You don’t get to be an important person in the world of finance without being really, really, really good at figuring out ways to pay yourself a lot of money. That’s what the field is all about."  Then this:

That said, we compensation reform aside, we actually have a well-established method of taking market distributions of income and trying to transmogrify it into a more just, useful, and welfare-enhancing deployment of social resources — taxes and public services....It strikes me as ultimately unlikely that the political process will be able to micromanage high finance in a way that strikes people as meeting the claims of justice. But the political process very much can collect tax revenues and use that revenue to finance things that we currently “can’t afford” like more widespread provision of health care services, better rail transportation, cleaner streets, more police officers, more and better pre-kindergarten, etc.

There's something to this, and since the share of national income hoovered up by the super-rich is about three times higher today than it was 30 years ago, I don't have a big problem with taxing that income at a higher rate.  But there's a limit to how effective that can be.  For a whole bunch of reasons, marginal tax rates higher than 50% or so are pretty unlikely, and effective tax rates at that level are probably impossible.  After all, those Wall Street guys are pretty good at tax planning, too.

Overall, there's not much question that Wall Street bankers are going to continue to be paid astronomical sums as long as the firms they run are making astronomical profits.  And that's the key problem.  Tax policy can help — though it's a pretty broad brush — but the fundamental problem is that the finance sector in the U.S. is so damn big.  And it's seemingly an unstoppable juggernaut: Wall Street income may have been down last year, but even the biggest economic collapse since World War II hasn't made even a medium term dent.  A mere year later, the overall size and profitability of the finance industry is on track to be about the same size as it was during the boom years.

In the light of all this, tax policy can work only on the margins, and putting in place a "pay czar" for Wall Street will do nothing except generate a few juicy headlines here and there.  Compensation follows money flows just as surely as the tide follows the orbit of the moon, and the only way to reduce Wall Street compensation is to reduce the size and profitability of Wall Street.  Unfortunately, no one wants to talk about that.  So instead we get a pay czar.

[Read Sunday night's preview here.]

10:10 Just about to start. You can follow tweets at thephoenixsun.

10:15: Gore, Chu, et al. take the stage. John Podesta (CAP) makes opening marks. "Clean energy infrastructure works best when it works together." EVs, solar, got to do everything at the same time. Mentions a green bank to put money into this effort.

10:25: Harry Reid: These problems didn't happen overnight and won't be solved quickly. But time to make a start. Schwartenegger won't be attending, mother-in-law Eunice Kennedy Shriver verry ill.

Introduces Al Gore.

OK, that didn't quite work out technically as planned.

I had thought my tweets would also show up here, but apparently not. Sorry about that.

All my tweets are available for your viewing pleasure, here.

For more, see NCES09 Central, here.

The Alaskan Way of Life

Kim Murphy of the LA Times reports from rural Alaska:

This summer Takotna, population somewhere between 46 and 61, has become one of the best-known villages in Alaska — thanks to the $18.7-million airstrip the federal government is funding on the edge of town. The 3,300-foot gravel runway, complete with night lighting, will replace the short one on a wind-swept hill where several planes have crashed.

....In an era of dwindling public revenue, even Alaskans increasingly wonder how much they can afford to support those who choose to live miles from civilization....According to the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, about $1.4 billion a year in state and federal government subsidies, purchases and wages goes to more than 200 far-flung villages in the state — from the frigid Arctic coastal plain to the soggy, impenetrable tundra of the deep Alaskan interior. Federal dollars help pay for airline service and mail delivery, subsidize electricity rates and fund health clinics, among other things.

"Even Alaskans" wonder how they can support this?  Spare me. For the most part, "Alaskans" don't.  The federal government does.  Alaskans could support these communities out of oil revenues, of course, but they choose instead to divvy up that cash into annual Christmas presents for themselves and then let the rest of the country support them.  See Charles Homans for more on this.

There's nothing unusual about this, of course.  On a per capita basis, rural America receives far more federal cash and far more federal development aid than the rest of the country, but they're also the ones who yell the loudest about big government and high taxes and standing on your own two legs.  Alaska just stands out more because their version of this hypocrisy is performed on a somewhat more spectacular scale.

Sarah Palin, Friday:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Sarah Palin, Sunday:

There are many disturbing details in the current bill that Washington is trying to rush through Congress, but we must stick to a discussion of the issues and not get sidetracked by tactics that can be accused of leading to intimidation or harassment.

Indeed.  Obama's evil death panels would kill my baby Trig, but let's be sure to keep the discourse civil.

Since I wrote last week about Obama’s capitulation to the drug industry, the White House sought to tamp down protests by Democratic House and Senate leaders by sweeping the whole business under the rug. Instead of openly agreeing to promise no control over pricing—the Obama public line earlier in the week–the White House now says, according to the Times on Saturday morning, that it’s all a big misunderstanding and the pricing question was not discussed.
      Oh, come on. That is a ridiculous line, since pricing of pharmaceutical products is not only a key issue in this year’s health care reform debate, but has been at the heart of the debate over controlling drugs since the Kefauver amendments in the 1950s. Remember, the mechanism that allows Big Pharma to have its way on pricing is patent protection, which has gone virtually unchanged over the years. What the companies are looking for is a way to maintain their monopoly.