2008 - %3, October

Obama the Cautious

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 4:49 PM EDT

OBAMA THE CAUTIOUS....More Ezra, this time on the likely impact of a Barack Obama presidency:

If the fact of Obama's candidacy has been remarkable, however, it's hard to escape the signs that his presidency will be rather less transformative. Obama's domestic policy proposals were the weakest of the three major Democrats. His legislative instincts, as he's frequently admitted and as his career suggests, are fairly cautious. His staff is primarily comprised of competent representatives of the center-left. His campaign picked no major fights with Democratic Party orthodoxy.

This is what makes the eleventh-hour conservative meltdown over Obama (he's a socialist, a street thug, a terrorist lover, a radical leftist, etc. etc.) so strange. It's true that Obama is something of a Rorschach test, with all of us seemingly projecting on him what we'd like to see (or, in some cases, fear to see), but the reality of the man sure doesn't seem to support anything very apocalyptic. Yes, he's young, black, and charismatic, but let's get real: the real reason most people are thrilled with him is that he's not George Bush. After eight years of Republican misrule, the Democrats could have nominated Austin Powers and the world would have breathed a sigh of relief.

As for Obama himself, Ezra is responding to a Jack Shafer column that complains about reporters being completely smitten by "the notion that Obama's candidacy is momentous, without parallel, and earth-shattering." But the links he provides — presumably the best he could Google up — are pretty thin fare, mostly just a few pundits claiming that Obama might help restore respect for America abroad. In fact, what's struck me most about pro-Obama campaign punditry both in the blogosphere and the MSM is how little of it has been motivated by an active defense of Obama. Andrew Sullivan aside, the vast bulk has been anti-McCain and anti-Bush. The blogosphere, the country, and the world are just tired of Republicans. Obama has run a good campaign, but if Hillary Clinton had won the nomination (or Al Gore or John Kerry or Socks the cat) they'd all be ahead by seven points too.

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How Much Does U.S. Spend on Spying? Almost $60 Billion

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 4:27 PM EDT

How much do the spies of the US government spend on their spying? Over $47 billion a year, according to budget numbers released on Tuesday by the Director of National Intelligence. And if you count the military intelligence program, the total amount is closer to $60 billion. This is only the fourth time in U.S. history that the government has publicly disclosed the intelligence budget. Secrecy News explains:

The aggregate intelligence budget figure (including national, joint military and tactical intelligence spending) was first released in 1997 ($26.6 billion) in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Federation of American Scientists. It was voluntarily released in 1998 ($26.7 billion). The National Intelligence Program budget was next disclosed in 2007 ($43.5 billion), in response to a Congressional mandate, based on a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. And then there was today's release for 2008.
In recent years, the most passionate opponent of intelligence budget disclosure has been none other than Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), whose own financial non-disclosure practices have recently earned him multiple felony convictions.
In an October 4, 2004 Senate floor debate, Senator Stevens usefully marshaled all of the traditional arguments against disclosure. Most of them were false at the time. Others have since been disproven.
"No other nation, friend, or ally, reveals the amount that it spends on intelligence," Sen. Stevens said then.
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In fact, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and other countries have published their intelligence budgets for many years without adverse effect.

From the Man Who Brought You the Segway: The Next Electric Car?

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 4:25 PM EDT

segway.jpgRemember the Segway? Back in 2000, the self-balancing scooter was hyped as the Second Coming of wheeled transport. Unfortunately for its inventor, eccentric New Yorker Dean Kamen, it hasn't really caught on outside a narrow circle of enthusiasts. But Kamen doesn't care. He's got something better:

Conceived in Scotland almost 200 years ago, the Stirling is a marvel of thermodynamics that could help to replace the internal combustion engine—in theory it can turn any source of heat into electricity, in silence and with 100 percent efficiency. But corporations including Phillips, Ford and Nasa have devoted decades of research, and millions of dollars, to developing the engine, and all retired defeated, having failed to find a way of turning the theoretical principles of the engine into a workable everyday application.

After ten years and a $40 million investment, Kamen and his engineers think they've succeeded where NASA failed. Though the Stirlings aren't ready for commercial use, Kamen says he's test-driven engines burning everything from jet fuel to cow manure. They don't work in cars yet, he says. But they will.

Obama Poster Parodies Proliferate

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 2:45 PM EDT

mojo-photo-obamaposters.jpgIt's poster parody pandemonium! We've already remarked here on the Riff about the cool design both coming from and being produced for the Obama campaign; one of the most iconic images so far is Shepard Fairey's red-and-blue "Hope" poster, whose graphic simplicity references classic propaganda just enough to be cool. The poster's design has become enough of a touchstone that parodies have been popping up, but I didn't realize quite how many: via BoingBoing comes this link to a page featuring a whole slew (89, in fact) of takes on the red-on-one-side-blue-on-the-other design. Some of these are obviously made by angry Republicans, who did nothing but change the "Hope" to a "Nope" and call it good. But my favorites are so nonsensical, they're oddly inspired: The Soup Nazi, over "Soup," of course; Amy Winehouse over "Dope"; the Pope over, uh, "Pope." However, this page did seem to miss a version that appeared during San Francisco's recent leather-themed Folsom Street Fair, whose cheeky reference to the "Obey" posters that made Fairey famous was suddenly appropriate in a whole new way. Yes, Mr. President, I've been very naughty. See that one after the jump.

Language Watch

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 2:28 PM EDT

LANGUAGE WATCH....Yesterday a regular reader emailed me about that famous quote from a McCain advisor calling Sarah Palin a "diva":

It's sad how the Republicans struggle with sexism and it shows (brutally) in the slamming she is starting to take. Sadly, though, if the internal warfare goes unchecked, Palin will be a stereotype — the single-mindedly, narcissistic, aggressive woman who is striving for self-aggrandizement at all costs, who lacks any intellectual depth and is ultimately shallow — a true Diva. And while part of me would be very happy if Palin's capitol exposure is forever limited to tours, another part of me sees the risks of more roadblocks for women.

I've been watching the growing grumblings and have been wondering how long it would be before we saw the reference to Diva, a great put-down of powerful women. Why can't she just be another self-interested but charismatic politician who is woefully out of her element and not appropriate for this position. And leave it at that. No, I bet you'll see more sexist-based disparagement from the right before this is done.

As a father of two strong-willed girls, the whole spectacle is frustrating.

Today, Mike Allen reports the latest:

In convo with Playbook, a top McCain adviser one-ups the priceless "diva" description, calling her "a whack job."

"Whack job" isn't sexist, is it? How about that instead?

Mccain's Newest Ad: Reprising a (Debunked) Lie

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 2:04 PM EDT

John McCain doesn't seem to care about how he finishes the race—with integrity or without. In recent days, he keeps claiming that Barack Obama is an untrustworthy pol who will say anything to get elected. But let's look at the newest McCain ad, Here's the narration:

Iran. Radical Islamic government. Known sponsors of terrorism. Developing nuclear capabilities to generate power, but threatening to eliminate Israel. Obama says Iran is a "tiny" country, "doesn't pose a serious threat." Terrorism, destroying Israel, those aren't "serious threats?" Obama—dangerously unprepared to be President.

This is about as dishonest an ad as the McCain campaign has produced. In fact, it's a repeat of an ad the campaign tried in August. When that earlier ad was released, Factcheck.org explained why it was fraudulent. Obama, it noted, had in May said this:

Strong countries and strong presidents talk to their adversaries. That's what Kennedy did with Khrushchev. That's what Reagan did with Gorbachev. That's what Nixon did with Mao. I mean think about it. Iran, Cuba, Venezuela—these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us.

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A Tiny Violin

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 1:42 PM EDT

A TINY VIOLIN....Yesterday I read that Porsche had increased its ownership stake in VW to 74% and was seeking a "dominance" agreement that would give it control over the company. Today, via Tyler Cowen, the Financial Times reports that hedge funds are pretty unhappy about this:

VW shares rose 147 per cent after Porsche unexpectedly disclosed that through the use of derivatives it had increased its stake in VW from 35 to 74.1 per cent, sparking outcry among investors, analysts and corporate governance experts.

....The sudden disclosure meant there was a free float of only 5.8 per cent — the state of Lower Saxony owns 20.1 per cent — sparking panic among hedge funds. Many had bet on VW's share price falling and the rise on Monday led to estimated losses among them of €10bn-€15bn ($12.5bn-$18.8bn).

"This was supposed to be a very low-risk trade and it's a nuclear bomb which has gone off in people's faces," said one hedge fund manager.

Technically, the complaint is that Porsche has been less than transparent about its maneuverings, and it might well be that current German regulation is too lax in this regard. That aside, though, can I just say that my heart is not exactly breaking for the hedge funds who got burned here? The whole point of most hedge funds is to invest vast sums of money with the least possible transparency possible, and now they're complaining because somebody else has executed a slick maneuver that made what was "supposed" to be a very low-risk trade into a money loser.

Well, guess what? There's are no tablets from Mt. Sinai that guarantee hedge funds access to low-risk-high-return investments. Their bet turned out to be a bad one, and now they're unhappy about it. Boo hoo.

For more, check out the first commenter to Tyler's post. He explains pretty well what happened here and how the hedge funds got burned.

Plan vs. "Plan"

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 12:58 PM EDT

PLAN vs. "PLAN"....Ezra Klein catches McCain advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin accidentally telling the truth about McCain's healthcare plan:

John McCain's health care plan aims to do something very simple: Raise taxes on the employer health insurance market so individuals move to the individual health insurance market. What Doug Holtz-Eakin just said is that even McCain's top advisers realize that this will mean much worse health care coverage for everyone involved. As he put it, "what they are getting from their employer is way better than what they could get with the [tax] credit."

Poor Douglas Holtz-Eakin. He's stuck having to defend a healthcare plan that's really a healthcare "plan." It doesn't work in theory, it doesn't work in practice, and it's not something that would appeal to most Americans in any case. But McCain needed a plan to compete with Obama's plan, and Republicans like tax credits, so that became the basis of his plan. The fact that it doesn't make sense isn't something that McCain really cares much about.

UPDATE: More here from Time's Karen Tumulty: "If Doug Holtz-Eakin doesn't believe that young, healthy people would leave the system, he might want to talk to Mitt Romney, who actually studied the situation in the real world when he was reforming the health care system in Massachusetts. It's not — as Holtz-Eakin suggests — that these healthier citizens would choose between staying with their employer-provided benefits or buying them on the open market. It's that they would decide to go uninsured entirely — leaving older and sicker people in the employer-provided system. That would make it even more expensive for employers to continue to provide coverage for their workers, accelerating a trend that we are already seeing, in which fewer and fewer companies are providing coverage."

Stimulate Me!

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 12:22 PM EDT

STIMULATE ME!....We have a long, hard recession ahead of us, and monetary policy has already done about as much for us as it can. That means we need fiscal stimulus and plenty of it. But what kind? Mark Zandi from Moody's Economy.com provides the answer and EPI makes it into a chart for your consideration. Basically, they suggest that the money is best spent (a) on low and middle income workers who will actually buy things with it, (b) infrastructure, because the recession is likely to be long and infrastructure projects take a while to get up and running, and (c) aid to states, who would otherwise have to cut back spending and thus blunt the effect of the stimulus package. Works for me.


Civil War Watch

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 11:48 AM EDT

CIVIL WAR WATCH....From the LA Times:

The social conservatives and moderates who together boosted the Republican Party to dominance have begun a tense battle over the future of the GOP, with social conservatives already moving to seize control of the party's machinery and some vowing to limit John McCain's influence, even if he wins the presidency.

In skirmishes around the country in recent months, evangelicals and others who believe Republicans have been too timid in fighting abortion, gay marriage and illegal immigration have won election to the party's national committee, in preparation for a fight over the direction and leadership of the party.

Obviously this sounds crazy to liberal ears, but I guess I can't blame them. After all, the job of a true believer is to believe. And turning elections into culture war battlefields certainly seems to have worked in the past for them.

But times change. Among vast swathes of the young, the culture war has lost its salience. Worse, it's become an albatross, a sign of intolerance and hatred that young voters despise. The results are crystal clear in party ID polling: twenty-somethings have fled the Republican Party in numbers not seen since the Great Depression, and if social conservatives manage to wrest control of the GOP and start shrieking 24/7 about banning abortion and hating gay people, they'll be guaranteeing Democratic dominance among an entire cohort of voters for decades to come.

Which is fine with me, of course. But the adults in the Republican Party better plan on knocking heads very hard and very fast if they don't share my attitude. Sarah Palin isn't the future of their party, she's the future of mine.