2008 - %3, November

Judge Orders Five Guantanamo Detainees Freed

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 2:18 PM EST

After hearing the Bush administration's evidence for holding six Algerians as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, a federal judge appointed by the first President Bush and who had been expected to be sympathetic to the government, sided with the defense and ordered the government to free five of the six men. The New York Times reports:

After the first hearing on the government's evidence for holding detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, a federal judge ruled on Thursday that five of the prisoners are not being lawfully held and ordered their release.
The case, involving six Algerians detained in Bosnia in 2001, was an important test of the Bush administration's detention policies, which critics have long argued swept up innocent men and low-level foot soldiers along with high-level and hardened terrorists.
The hearings for the Algerian men, in which all evidence was heard in proceedings closed to the public, were the first in which the Department of Justice presented its full justification for holding specific detainees since the Supreme Court ruled in June that Guantánamo detainees have a constitutional right to contest their imprisonment in habeas corpus suits.
Ruling from the bench, Judge Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court in Washington said that the information gathered on the men had been sufficient to hold them for intelligence purposes, but was not strong enough in court.

Even more notable, the judge issued an appeal to the government, asking that it not appeal his decision that five of the six were not enemy combatants. He told the government that it would be able to make all its legal arguments when the defense makes it appeal concerning the one detainee whom the judge ruled did qualify as an enemy combatant. In other words, the judge, not exactly a jurist most predisposed toward the defense, emotionally requested that the government let these five fellows, who were detained in the first place under suspicious circumstances, go after many years of unjustified imprisonment.

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The Iraq "Surge" Is Working, But Will It Be Enough?

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 1:45 PM EST

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The Fund For Peace has released its eighth in a series of reports about the progress (or lack thereof) of the US occupation of Iraq. The "surge," says the report (.pdf), has been successful at reducing violence, but "a false sense of security is emerging" that this alone will be enough to set Iraq on the course to long-term stability.

Analysts and journalists everywhere seem to have bought into the Bush administration's line that things are looking up—a view reflected in John McCain's campaign claim that we are "on a path to victory." General David Petraeus, however, has been more cautious in his assessment, describing the emerging peace in Iraq as "fragile" and "reversible." This is closer to the truth, say the report's authors.

Yes, violent deaths are down, but not even close to what we'd expect in a functioning civil society. The "surge" has reduced killings by 80 percent over the past year, but even at current levels, 800 people continue to die each month from political violence. "Putting this into a comparative context," the reports reads, "this means that nearly as many people were dying violently in four to five months in post-surge Iraq as had died in three decades of civil conflict in Northern Ireland."

And whatever sense of security Iraqis may enjoy, at least compared with a year ago, remains somewhat fragile—and primarily an outgrowth of the ferocious ethnic cleansing that occurred in Iraqi cities and towns before the "surge" began. Today, Iraqis live highly segregated communities, divided by ethnicity and religion. According to an August 2008 poll, 74 percent of Iraqis said they felt safe at home. But outside of their segregated neighborhoods, only 37 percent felt that way... and fewer still, just 31 percent, agreed that today's Iraq could be described as "stable."


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Army.mil.

Business and Labor

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 1:44 PM EST

BUSINESS AND LABOR....At the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council yesterday, the one where Rahm Emanuel told business leaders that the Obama administration would "throw long and deep," he also took a question about the Employee Free Choice Act:

He was asked his views on the push by labor unions to allow workplaces to be organized with the signing of cards attesting to union support rather than a secret ballot. Mr. Emanuel declined to say whether the White House would support the legislation, but he said the unions are addressing the concerns of a middle class that has seen U.S. median income slide over the past eight years, while health care, energy and education costs have soared.

Does this mean Obama won't actually push for passage of EFCA, even though he said during the campaign he would? Who knows. But apropos of my comment the other day about anti-unionism being at the core of Main Street conservatism, what it does show is that Emanuel felt pretty comfortable telling the gathered CEOs that Obama would push for global warming controls, healthcare reform, lots of deficit spending on an economic stimulus package, and a comprehensive new set of financial regulations. That's all socialism, of course, but he knew the titans of American industry wouldn't fuss about it too much.

But a proposal that might end up increasing private sector union density from its current 7.5% to, say, 8.5%? (Or, if you're really optimistic, maybe 9.5%.) That, he knew, would send the place into a frenzy. Like I said on Monday, there's nothing that gets business leaders more panicked than the idea of workers organizing for higher wages. Nothing.

On a related note, here's a prediction: Obama will need a few votes from Senate Republicans to pass his legislative program. I'll bet he'll get it on global warming controls, healthcare reform, economic stimulus, and financial regulation. But on EFCA, he'll have trouble getting even a single Republican vote. That will be considered the make-or-break vote from the business community. Just wait and see.

Parking

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 12:21 PM EST

PARKING....Matt Yglesias suggests that conservatives ought to apply free market thinking to issues of urban development:

To my way of thinking an enormous amount of good could be done if conservatives were more interested in applying really basic free market principles to transportation policy. For example, why not allow developers to build as much or as little parking as they want to build when they launch a new development? Why not charge market rates for curbside parking on public streets? How about fewer restrictions on the permitted density of development? Why not reduce congestion on the most-trafficked roads through market pricing of access?

Well, sure. Actually, though, I think conservatives are generally fairly open to the idea of letting developers do whatever they want just on general pandering-to-business-interests grounds. The problem is that the public tends to be rabidly opposed to this kind of thing, and nobody who proposes it has a chance of getting elected (or reelected). So discretion ends up becoming the better part of valor.

Of course, there's also a chicken and egg problem here. You really can't build enormous apartment complexes with little or no parking if everyone who lives in the area owns a car. Nobody will rent your apartments if they can't park their cars, after all. Mass transit is the obvious answer to this, but it's still the case that no one will rent your apartment unless transit is so good that they can ditch their car entirely and therefore don't need a parking place. But in most places mass transit is nowhere near that good, so parking spaces continue to be needed. But as long parking spaces are freely available, the pressure to improve mass transit remains minimal.

What to do? Cities have some pretty good options for improving transit, along with a populace that's less car crazy than the rest of the country, but they usually have huge budgetary constraints. Suburbs and rural areas, conversely, sometimes have the money but seem hopelessly distant from any kind of reasonable solution in anything but the longest term. Here in Orange County, for example, you'd almost literally have to bulldoze the entire place and build anew to get even close to the density you'd need for a decent mass transit system to work.

Maybe motor scooters are the answer. If we all owned one car and one little Vespa out here in suburbia, instead of two cars, we could start cutting back on parking spaces gradually and save gasoline in the process. An electric Vespa with 30 or 40 miles of range on a charge would be even better. Maybe development of a Volt-based scooter ought to be a condition for a GM bailout.

Might not be very popular outside the warm weather south, though. Any other ideas?

Waxman Wins

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 12:19 PM EST

WAXMAN WINS....The news keeps getting better and better. The House Democratic caucus just voted 137-122 to replace John Dingell (D–General Motors) as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The new chair will be Henry Waxman, who cares deeply about global warming and will be a huge ally in the fight to get serious carbon legislation passed next year. This is change we can believe in.

Think You Can Run the Minnesota Recount? Here's a Test

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 12:17 PM EST

Minnesota Public Radio has been photographing ballots in the Franken/Coleman Senate recount to illustrate just how hard it is to determine voter intent. What do you do, for example, when someone votes for Franken but also writes in "Lizard People"? What do you do when someone votes for Franken, but then draws an arrow to the Coleman circle? What do you do when someone doesn't mark a circle, but puts a scribble next to one of the candidates' names? Take a look for yourself here, and vote on whether each ballot should count here. (You know who could run this recount? David Corn. He has experience from Florida in 2000.)

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Gutting the Trout

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 12:12 PM EST

GUTTING THE TROUT....Ezra informs us today that the healthcare insurance industry has blinked. But it's sort of a Sarah Palin blink:

The big news of the day is that the insurance industry has offered a deal: In return for a mandate in which every American must purchase health care coverage, they will stop refusing to sell insurance to those with preexisting conditions. Some deal. They're basically saying that if we legislate that every American must purchase insurance coverage, they will sell insurance coverage, at some price, to every American.

Needless to say, this is a deal that every industry in America would love. Take GM, for example. Why bother bailing them out with taxpayer cash? Just pass a law instead mandating that every American has to buy a Chevy, let GM set the price, and they'd be back in business!

Of course, it's actually worse than that. At least if you mandated car purchases, the car companies would still compete for business by lowering prices. Healthcare companies, conversely, don't want your business if you have a preexisting condition. Why would they? So they'd actually do just the opposite, jacking up prices steadily to ensure that someone else will end up getting your business if you happen to be a diabetic or have a family history of coronary trouble.

Ezra explains all this in more detail, but for now I'll just observe that a blink is a blink, even if the deal on the table is patently ridiculous. It means the health insurance industry is scared that we might actually do something in 2009 and they want to be seen as something other than completely obstructionist. That means only one thing: they've shown fear, and now it's time to bore in for the kill and gut them like trouts. Let's get to it.

Victory on Capitol Hill: Waxman Takes House Energy Committee

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 11:53 AM EST

henry-waxman250x200.jpg Huge news. Great news. Michigan Representative John Dingell, who has spent over 50 years in the House of Representatives being the auto industry's babysitter, has lost his position as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to the younger and more liberal Henry Waxman. The House Democratic caucus voted by secret ballot this morning. Members had a choice between voting for seniority or the possibility of bold and necessary action on climate change. They made the right choice, 137-122.

Newt Explains It All For You

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 11:45 AM EST

NEWT EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU....In the Wall Street Journal today, Newt Gingrich and Peter Ferrara tell us why median wages have sucked so badly during the Bush era:

Marginal tax rates for middle-income families in the 25% tax bracket are too high. Add in effective payroll tax rates of 15% and state income taxes, and these workers are laboring under marginal tax rates of close to 50%. No wonder middle-income wage growth has slowed sharply.

Yep, that explains it: George Bush has kept taxes too damn high and no one wants to work anymore. It's analysis like this that has made Newt the conservative visionary he is.

Who's Really Calling The Shots on The Economic Bailout?

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 11:30 AM EST

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a non-partisan watchdog group that advocates transparency and accountability in Washington, today fired off a letter to leaders of a half dozen relevant House and Senate committees, requesting more information on how lawmakers decided to approve the $700-billion economic bailout package. Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director, complained of a "continued lack of openness concerning the government's response" to the financial crisis and urged Congress to ensure that appropriate safeguards are put in place to prevent fraud and abuse.

From the letter:

We take no position on the merits of the various actions over recent months to address the crisis. However, Congress needs to act now to ensure that the ongoing expenditures of billions—even trillions—of the taxpayers' funds are subjected to extraordinary scrutiny.
Too few questions are being asked about the how, and even the why, behind these enormous undertakings. Even when questions do get raised, as at recent hearings, numerous important questions go unanswered. This issue is so critical we feel compelled to urge you to demand those answers, either directly from policymakers and recipients of these taxpayer funds, or through your own independent investigations.
At this writing, nearly half of the $700 billion appropriated under the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) has gone out the Treasury's door with little openness. The public needs to know how the beneficiaries of their tax funds are chosen, how conflicts of interest are guarded against, and whether the integrity of the process has been assured...
Our overriding concern is the utter lack of information about who is making critical decisions involving untold billions of taxpayer dollars. It is not clear how banks or other institutions are chosen to be bailed out or allowed to fail. It is a mystery to us and to the public why one industry is favored and another is left to suffer. We are at a loss to understand how particular companies or institutions within particular industries are blessed and others are not. Irrespective of whether the decisions are made by political appointees, career employees, or Members of Congress, the decision-making process has been a nearly perfect black box.