The Truthiest New Show on Television

THE TRUTHIEST NEW SHOW ON TELEVISION....Over at TNR, Jeffrey Rosen reviews ABC's Homeland Security USA: "Every segment inadvertently reminded us why DHS officers spend so little time protecting the homeland against violent threats: Investigations that begin by looking for terrorists come up short, so officers have no alternative but to snag people for non-violent crimes." Good to know.

Stimulus Math

STIMULUS MATH....Jonathan Stein points me to a Washington Post story telling us that Barack Obama has decided to ditch the $3,000-per-job tax credit that was part of his original stimulus proposal. Good. It was a dumb and almost certainly unworkable idea. But there's also this:

Obama advisers said further adjustments may be made to the president-elect's tax priorities, including to a proposed $500 payroll tax credit for individuals. Many Democrats have criticized Obama's idea of distributing the benefit over 12 months, saying it would amount to about $20 per paycheck for workers who are paid every two weeks. They would prefer to distribute the credit over a shorter period.

I'm basically with Obama here. But I'd actually suggest something different: make the credit bigger, pay it out over two years, and have it automatically decline. For example, how about $2,000 paid out quarterly over two years? The credit would be $400 in the first quarter, $300 in the second and third quarters, and so on until you get down to $100 in the eighth and final quarter. This front loads the stimulus now, when it's most needed, keeps it going throughout the expected length of the recession, and makes it predictable enough that people know they can count on it. It might also strike a good balance between the amount of the stimulus that gets spent vs. the amount that gets saved. Worth a thought, anyway.

Much has already been written about Fox's 24 and its role in mainstreaming the use of torture. (The show's protagonist, Jack Bauer, is a frequent and effective torturer.) But the seventh season of the show, which premiered Sunday, seems to be turning away from the incidental normalization of torture (in which torture was shown to be necessary and effective but was rarely discussed) and is now instead making an explicit argument for the use of torture. I won't spoil much about the two-episode premier by telling you that Jack Bauer was called before a Senate hearing to account for his "crimes," but was conveniently pulled away at the last minute because of a pressing national security matter. Kevin Drum also watched on Sunday. He writes:

[I]t's obvious that the show is going to deal head on with the subject of torture this season... Is there any way for this end other than badly? After all, here in the blogosphere we opponents of torture like to argue that we don't live in the world of 24, guys. And we don't. But Jack Bauer, needless to say, does live in the world of 24. And in that world, there are well-heeled terrorists around every corner, ticking time bombs aplenty, and torture routinely saves thousands of lives. What are the odds that it won't do so again this season — except this time after lots of talk about the rule of law blah blah liberals blah blah it's your call blah blah? Pretty low, I'd guess. Hopefully the writers will surprise me.

After watching the third and fourth episodes of the season on Monday night, I'd be pretty surprised if Kevin is surprised by the writers. Over at Kevin's blog (where there's a great discussion going on in the comments), commenter Cuttle gets it exactly right, and is worth quoting at length:

Two pieces on the front page of the Washington Post's Sunday "Outlook" section illustrate some of what's wrong with the terms of current debates around health care costs and health care for the elderly. The juxtaposition of these two commentaries, which appeared side-by-side under a photo of a sunset and the heading "The Dying of the Light," sends an insidious message about the need for "rationing" treatment to the very old and very sick: To keep health care costs from bankrupting our society, it suggests, we may have no choice but to pull the plug on the geezers.

The Post feature is only the latest of a growing volume of commentary on so-called age-based health care rationing. Even beyond any core ethical questions, the problem with these discussions is what they too often fail to mention: the role of private profits in creating, or at least seriously exacerbating, the supposedly intractable problem of health care costs. Like everything else in the public debate over health care policy, the "dying of the light" has become subject to the lying of the right, where corporate interests trump even questions of life and death.

Bush's Mistakes

BUSH'S MISTAKES....Noam Scheiber points to an interesting passage from President Bush's press conference yesterday. The subject is whether he made any mistakes in office:

I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake. I should have argued for immigration reform. And the reason why is, is that — you know, one of the lessons I learned as governor of Texas, by the way, is legislative branches tend to be risk-adverse. In other words, sometimes legislatures have the tendency to ask, why should I take on a hard task when a crisis is not imminent? And the crisis was not imminent for Social Security as far as many members of Congress was concerned.

As an aside, one thing I proved is that you can actually campaign on the issue and get elected. In other words, I don't believe talking about Social Security is the third rail of American politics. I, matter of fact, think that in the future, not talking about how you intend to fix Social Security is going to be the third rail of American politics.

This is sort of fascinating on a few different levels. First: that Bush somehow thinks immigration reform would have been less contentious than Social Security. In what universe? He may not read blogs, but surely he and Karl Rove were at least dimly aware of what Rush Limbaugh and the dittoheads all thought about this? Is he really this out of touch with the base of his own party? Or does he just not want to admit to himself what that base is really motivated by?

Second: that he thinks he campaigned on the issue of Social Security reform. But in fact he barely mentioned it. One of the very reasons his proposal flopped (though certainly not the biggest reason) is that it came out of the blue. He spent most of the 2004 campaign talking about national security and tax cuts and whatnot, and then as soon as he won he suddenly announced that a massive Social Security overhaul was at the top of his agenda. If he had campaigned on it, he either would have learned quickly what a loser his privatization plan was or else ginned up some support for it. But he didn't.

Third: Bush is still a political animal. His motivation for immigration reform was to lure Hispanics into the GOP fold, as he had successfully done in Texas, and his failure to do that still resonates with him as one of his biggest mistakes. He continues to find it hard to fess up to any kind of real policy errors (cf. Katrina during the same press conference), but he's far more open to taking blame for failures in electoral strategy, which is sort of the game-playing side of being president and head of the party. In the end, apart from his tireless infatuation with being a "war president," I think that's always been the part of the job that animated him more than any other.

Printing Money

PRINTING MONEY....Ben Bernanke says the Fed still has "powerful tools" at its disposal to fight the recession even though interest rates are already down to zero. Felix Salmon is unimpressed:

The natural response to this is simple: if you still have powerful tools at your disposal, why haven't you used them already? And why did you enact that final rate cut to zero, which necessarily comes accompanied by all manner of nasty consequences in the repo markets and at money-market funds? That decision certainly made it seem as though the Fed believes a marginal further reduction in the Fed funds rate is still far more effective than any of its other policies.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Bernanke believes there's a price to be paid for taking extraordinary measures, and it's a price he'd rather not pay unless he absolutely has to. Printing money may be within his authority, but there's no surer way of admitting that literally everything else has failed and you're now on your last legs. I don't blame him for not wanting to go there if there's even the slightest chance he doesn't have to.

Phil Gramm Will Wonder Aloud: What Did I Ever Do?

The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank and haven for discredited neoconservatives, is hosting a discussion next Friday titled "Is Deregulation a Cause of the Financial Crisis?" Here's the description:

During the recent campaign season, the Democrats blamed the financial crisis on "Republican deregulation," in particular the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 (GLBA) and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (CFMA). The GLBA repealed the provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that prevented affiliations between commercial and investment banks, and the CFMA, among other things, exempted credit default swaps and other derivatives from regulation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Although both acts were backed by the Clinton administration, Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas)--then the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee--was the key congressional sponsor of the legislation. Is it plausible to connect the GLBA and the CFMA with the current financial crisis?

Guess who has been tabbed to answer the question of whether or not Phil Gramm screwed up the financial industry? That's right, Phil Gramm. He's AEI top guest for the evening. Fortunately, we can save you the trouble of going to this thing, because we've already answered the question. In summer 2008, David Corn published a piece called "Foreclosure Phil" that began:

Who's to blame for the biggest financial catastrophe of our time? There are plenty of culprits, but one candidate for lead perp is former Sen. Phil Gramm.

Visit AEI in a week and a half for a whole bunch of rationalization and self-justification or take a quick gander at David's excellent piece over your lunch break. Your choice.

Quote of the Day - 01.13.09

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Peter Schrag, former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, on the California GOP:

With each passing day, Republicans look ever more like a suicidal cult than a political party.

Oddly enough, this really isn't hyperbole. It's a pretty sober statement of consensus reality right now in the Golden State.

Trade Deficits

TRADE DEFICITS....Atrios comments on our financial predicament:

As all good economists "know," one day our trade gap will have to shrink....

I wonder what those scare quotes are supposed to mean? Is it a way of suggesting that the conventional wisdom about trade deficits is wrong? That economists are idiots? Perhaps a comment on the ultimate ineffability of true knowledge? What? Sometimes it's like trying to decipher Peking wall posters over there.

Showing Who's Boss

SHOWING WHO'S BOSS....Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explains how he gets things done when the U.S. State Department is pushing to vote for a UN resolution he opposes:

"I said, 'Get me President Bush on the phone,' " Mr. Olmert said in a speech in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, according to The Associated Press. "They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care: 'I need to talk to him now,' " Mr. Olmert continued. "He got off the podium and spoke to me."

....Mr. Olmert claimed that once he made his case to Mr. Bush, the president called [Condoleezza] Rice and told her to abstain. "She was left pretty embarrassed," Mr. Olmert said, according to The A.P.

There are, of course, many things you could say about this. But the question that most piques my curiosity is: Why? Why would Olmert tell this story? Sure, he's bragging for a local audience, but what's the point? It's not as if he's running for anything these days. And he has to know that a story like this will embarrass the American government on a whole bunch of different levels. So why do it? Is he an idiot? Does he just not care anymore? What's the deal?

UPDATE: The most obvious comment about Olmert's story, of course, is this one:

"This is terrible for the United States," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. "This confirms every assumption they have in the Arab world about the tail wagging the dog. . . . It's a story you're likely to hear quoted there for years to come."

I'd say that's a pretty fair guess. Thanks a lot, Mr. Prime Minister.