2009 - %3, January

Smile!

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:38 PM EST

SMILE!....I missed posting about this over the weekend, but the Washington Post ran a fascinating article yesterday about a multi-year effort by the Maryland State Police to spy on a wide variety of liberal activist groups. It all started with the infiltration of a group protesting a planned execution, and then spiraled out of control:

Meanwhile, the intelligence-gathering expanded in other directions, to activists in New York, Missouri, San Francisco and at the University of Maryland. Shane Dillingham's primary crime, according to the six-page file classifying him as a terrorist, was "anarchism." Police opened a file on the doctoral student in history a week after an undercover officer attended a College Park forum featuring a jailhouse phone conversation with Evans.

Investigators also tracked activists protesting weapons manufactured by defense contractor Lockheed Martin. They watched two pacifist Catholic nuns from Baltimore. Environmental activists made it into the database, as did three leaders of Code Pink, a national women's antiwar group, who do not live in Maryland.

PETA was labeled a "security threat group" in April 2005, and by July police were looking into a tip that the group had learned about a failing chicken farm in Kent County and planned on "protesting or stealing the chickens."

This all started in 2005 and went on until 2007, so it wasn't some kind of panicked reaction to 9/11. It's been stopped since, and according to the Post, the Maryland State Police "plan to solicit advice from the ACLU, the General Assembly, prosecutors and police about regulations that would raise the bar for intelligence-gathering to 'reasonable suspicion' of a crime." Good to know.

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How to Rebuild the SEC

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:17 PM EST

The portions of Michael Lewis and David Einhorn's NYT op-ed that Noam Scheiber highlights are really worth sharing. On the campaign trail, Obama made it appear that he was going to use the financial crisis to bring back regulation to our financial markets. Lewis and Einhorn have an easy way for him to start. Let's hope our President-elect doesn't go weak in the knees.

It's not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does. If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.
The commission's most recent director of enforcement is the general counsel at JPMorgan Chase; the enforcement chief before him became general counsel at Deutsche Bank; and one of his predecessors became a managing director for Credit Suisse before moving on to Morgan Stanley. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of landing the job as the S.E.C.'s director of enforcement is to position oneself for the better paying one on Wall Street....

The key suggestion:

If the S.E.C. is to restore its credibility as an investor protection agency, it should have some experienced, respected investors (which is not the same thing as investment bankers) as commissioners. President-elect Barack Obama should nominate at least one with a notable career investing capital, and another with experience uncovering corporate misconduct. As it happens, the most critical job, chief of enforcement, now has a perfect candidate, a civic-minded former investor with firsthand experience of the S.E.C.'s ineptitude: Harry Markopolos [the investor who spent years trying to alert the SEC to Bernie Madoff].

Obama Transition Releases Donors

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:03 PM EST

With this little toot of its own horn:

We refuse all donations from corporations, labor unions and PACs. Individuals may not donate more than $5,000. We also refuse all contributions from registered federal lobbyists and registered foreign agents.

You can search through the donors here. So far, I can tell you that Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, Rod Blagojevich, and Roland Burris have all chosen not to donate. Like every journalist in America, I plugged their names in before anyone else's.

"Senator Franken": Getting Closer

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 8:39 AM EST

Here's CNN:

A state election board on Monday will announce Democrat Al Franken has defeated Republican incumbent Norm Coleman in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race, state officials told CNN Sunday....
The canvassing board on Monday will say a recount determined Franken won by 225 votes, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie told CNN.

The Coleman campaign is expected to file a legal challenge, alleging that about 650 absentee ballots, many from pro-Coleman areas, were improperly rejected in the course of the recount. Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats have declared Franken the winner, but Republican senators have promised they will filibuster to keep Franken from being seated while legal challenges are still outstanding. It appears "Senator Franken" could be seated in January, February, or even March.

Update: What's the takeaway? We will soon have a senator who once did things like this.

Negotiating With Themselves

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 2:50 AM EST

NEGOTIATING WITH THEMSELVES....Paul Krugman surveys the current political scene and wonders if Barack Obama is going to be undone by his insistence on bipartisanship:

Here's my nightmare scenario: It takes Congress months to pass a stimulus plan, and the legislation that actually emerges is too cautious. As a result, the economy plunges for most of 2009, and when the plan finally starts to kick in, it's only enough to slow the descent, not stop it. Meanwhile, deflation is setting in, while businesses and consumers start to base their spending plans on the expectation of a permanently depressed economy — well, you can see where this is going.

So this is our moment of truth. Will we in fact do what's necessary to prevent Great Depression II?

I've been getting the same sense recently: Obama's team is so focused on getting a big bipartisan majority for their stimulus legislation that they're negotiating their goals down even before they actually start negotiating. I'm reluctant to critique Obama's political instincts, since they've proven shrewd so often in the past, but I gotta say: this isn't going to work. Obviously Obama needs a modest level of Republican support just to get the bill passed, but he doesn't need 80 votes, and straining to get there will just produce a watered-down plan without getting anything in return.

The American public really doesn't know or care if this bill passes by one vote or thirty votes. So why waste time on this? It's just a gold-embossed invitation for Republicans to obstruct and posture endlessly, something they hardly need any encouragement for.

Yet Another Reason to Hate Bankers

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 11:50 PM EST

YET ANOTHER REASON TO HATE BANKERS....Headline from the Wall Street Journal tonight:

Twin Risks for Treasurys in Year Ahead

This is the second time I've seen this in the past couple of days, and I don't remember seeing it before. Is the plural of treasury really treasurys? Shouldn't it be treasuries?

Via Google, I see that both forms are fairly common. But why? Where did treasurys burble up from? Is Wall Street, not content merely to ruin our economy, now taking a crack at ruining the English language too?

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Settlements

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 10:19 PM EST

SETTLEMENTS....Todd Gitlin calls this admission from Aaron David Miller "shocking." The subject is Israeli-Palestinian relations:

In 25 years of working on this issue for six secretaries of state, I can't recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity — including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions — does to the peacemaking process.

It's sort of hard to imagine an equally important topic on the Palestinian side never even being raised with its top leadership, isn't it?

Forthwith

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 8:48 PM EST

FORTHWITH....CQ reports that Nancy Pelosi is planning to limit the ability of Republicans to delay legislation via motions to recommit bills to committee. That would be nice. However, as I recall, Pelosi and Steny Hoyer made noises about doing this a couple of years ago but then backed down. Perhaps they're more serious this time.

In case you're curious — and I don't blame you if you aren't — here's what this is all about. Just before the House holds its final vote on a bill, House rules allow the minority party one last motion to recommit the bill to committee. However, if they opt for just a straight recommit, it's almost certain to get voted down and nothing is accomplished. So instead, they usually move to "recommit with instructions."

This is where it gets complicated. If the motion requires the bill to be returned "forthwith," then it's just a fake recommittal. The bill never leaves the floor, the entire House gets to vote on the amendment immediately, and then the final vote is held.

But if the motion requires the bill to be returned "promptly," then it really goes back to committee. And given the fact that it's already probably been in committee for months, and the calendar is packed full of other stuff, this is likely to mean that the bill dies. So the majority party will almost always want to vote down this kind of recommittal.

(Are you bored already with this parliamentary minutiae? Join the club. When Richard Hudson, chief of staff to Texas Republican Rep. John Carter, left the Hill last year, Politico asked him, "What word or phrase do you never want to hear again once you leave?" His answer: "Should this motion to recommit be 'promptly' or 'forthwith'?")

Anyway. Back to our story. So here's what happens with these recommittals. The minority party proposes an amendment that will make great campaign fodder. On the reauthorization of the AmeriCorps volunteer program last March, for example, Randy Kuhl proposed language requiring criminal background checks on prospective volunteers. If he were genuinely concerned with background checks, he would have accepted "forthwith" language and allowed a vote on his amendment, which probably would have passed. But he didn't. He insisted on "promptly" language instead. Why? Because he knew that the majority would resist delaying the bill by sending it back to committee, and that's what he was really after. He wanted to force them to vote down his motion so that Republicans could all go home and claim that Democrats had voted against background checks on AmeriCorps volunteers.

Dems, of course, would explain that they weren't against background checks at all, and they would have voted for it if the motion had been written differently, and ... and — well, after their constituents had finally roused themselves again after falling into a stupor listening to this, all they'd remember is that....Dems voted against background checks on AmeriCorps volunteers.

So it's all political gamesmanship. And there's a case to be made that, after all, the job of the opposition is to oppose, and if they can find a way to use the rules to delay, obstruct, or embarrass the majority party, then more power to them. It's up to the majority to suck it up and get their agenda passed anyway. However, there's a better case to be made that the unending search for clever parliamentary tactics doesn't need to be allowed to go on without limit. Forcing the majority to vote down popular amendments is an ancient and legitimate political tactic, but the "promptly" gambit is a completely empty scam. Pelosi is on firm ground getting rid of it.

Via Needlenose.

More Movie Musing

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 6:57 PM EST

MORE MOVIE MUSING....Responding to my earlier kvetching about Ron Howard's dramatic liberties in A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, Sempringham asks:

Were you annoyed with Milos Forman's Amadeus? Or, for that matter, with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar? Fictions, both of them. But if you can get over that ... not awful.

Good question! The Shakespeare chestnut comes up every time someone complains about historical inaccuracies in films, but it's a red herring. Shakespeare deliberately fudged a lot of his history because he was a stooge for the Tudors1, and fudged the rest because Elizabethan audences didn't care as long as they got enough blood and gore. But the fact that Shakespeare was a great Elizabethan dramatist doesn't mean we're also required to celebrate Elizabethan mores in historical accuracy, any more than we're required to celebrate Elizabethan mores in race relations, religious liberty, or criminal justice.

Moving on to Amadeus, the answer is yes, I was annoyed — but not all that much. I've never thought too much about why this is, but my guess is that I become more indulgent of this kind of thing the further back in history it is. Libeling Salieri just doesn't seem like that big a deal to me, and having a generation of moviegoers misinformed about him likewise doesn't seem like that big a deal.

But more recent events pose a bigger problem. A correspondent, who shares my view that filmmakers should be free to adapt fiction any way they feel like, tries to analogize this to docudrama:

Even though Frost/Nixon isn't exactly the same thing as adapting literature to film, I think one might make a similar case about adapting history to film. When you translate a story from one context to another, the demands change. I guess I don't have a problem with Howard inventing scenes to flesh out the psychodynamics of the narrative and/or develop his characters ... after all, if you want just the facts ma'am, read the bonafide scholarly historical accounts or get your hands dirty with the primary documents themselves.

....I don't see much ground on which to get all bent out of shape b/c these kinds of stories deviate from the "true" history, unless you go to these sorts of films to see meticulous historical reenactments, and this only makes sense if you think there is some fixed account of History that can be and retold "correctly." The real standard of the film's success ought to be how well it succeeds in conveying its meaning or truth(s) of the Frost/Nixon story.

Leaving aside the whole fraught issue of "truth" vs. truth, I'm still not sure I buy this. Granted, film has its own vocabulary and its own dramatic requirements, and I wouldn't generally have a problem with inventing a few minor scenes to move the story along or deep sixing some detail that doesn't change the main narrative. But A Beautiful Mind didn't do that. It just flat out invented huge chunks of stuff that either never happened or else happened in completely different ways. If, literally, the only thing that matters is (a) mathematician, (b) mental illness, and (c) eventual Nobel Prize, then I guess Howard didn't do anything wrong. But that seems like way too low a bar to me, and based on the reviews and criticisms, it sounds like something similar happened in Frost/Nixon.

So, anyway, I guess that's where I come down. If you're adapting fiction, everything is fair game. Make whatever movie your creative vision tells you to. If you're adapting history, especially recent history, dramatic liberties should be used more sparingly unless the movie is clearly intended to be, say, a visual tone poem (The New World) or a piece of agitprop (JFK) specifically designed to get people arguing.

Aside from that, though, the public wanders around with enough misconceptions about basic facts of recent history already. There's no need to deliberately make things worse, and there are plenty of good stories to tell. If the one you're telling doesn't have enough drama on its own merits, maybe you'd be better off finding a different one.

1Keith G thinks I'm being a wee bit hard on Will here. But see? That's what happens when the rabble gets spoonfed bad (but exciting!) history from its betters.

Return a Hyundai: Further (Crazy?) Innovations from Desperate Carmakers

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 6:27 PM EST

Remember the "Buy One, Get One Free" Dodge trucks? This rivals that in the we'll-do-anything-to-sell-cars category. I heard about it while watching the Eagles-Vikings playoff game on Fox. It's called Hyundai Assurance:

Finance or lease any new Hyundai, and if in the next year you lose your income*, we'll let you return it. That's the Hyundai Assurance.
Starting today you can feel good about buying a car, despite these current times. If you find that you cannot make your payment because of a covered life changing event, we'll allow you to return your vehicle and walk away from your loan obligation — and in most cases we will cover most, if not all of the difference.

Notice that asterisk? Hyundai doesn't explain on its website what it means to "lose your income." They suggest you visit a Hyundai dealer to find out, which I am most certainly not going to do. Lot of that going around, I guess.