2009 - %3, March

Suckitude Update

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:50 PM EDT
Man, does it suck working on a 1024x768 screen with a 1360x768 monitor.  It's like staring at a Dali painting all day long.  I've got a new Acer on its way, though, and I even paid a boatload extra for 2-day delivery.  Now I'm wishing I'd paid a yachtload more for overnight.  Sigh.

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What Bush-Era Bureaucratic Incompetence Looks Like

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:49 PM EDT

This is pretty fantastic. And by "fantastic," I mean awful but very useful.

Rarely do you find an example of the Bush Administration's philosophical approach to the bureaucracy (government doesn't work and we're going to prove it!) illustrated as starkly as it is in this New York Times article on the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division.

In a report scheduled to be released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office found that the agency, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, had mishandled 9 of the 10 cases brought by a team of undercover agents posing as aggrieved workers.

In one case, the division failed to investigate a complaint that under-age children in Modesto, Calif., were working during school hours at a meatpacking plant with dangerous machinery, the G.A.O., the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, found.

When an undercover agent posing as a dishwasher called four times to complain about not being paid overtime for 19 weeks, the division’s office in Miami failed to return his calls for four months, and when it did, the report said, an official told him it would take 8 to 10 months to begin investigating his case.

Other examples abound. The whole article (via TNR) is worth reading. Keep in mind, though, that while the mismanagement at Labor may be comical, it is not borne out of incompetence. This is malicious. The government was intentionally allowed to atrophy under the Bush Administration because it suited that crowd's ideological ends. The perversion of the FDA, the EPA, and the SEC all speak to that. And if the mandated inaction desiccated the parts of the government that are designed to protect or help the poor -- like in this instance -- all the better.

Quote of the Day - 3.25.09

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:36 PM EDT
From Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, on the $45 billion in taxpayer capital that they accepted last year:

"As soon as we think the markets normalize, we would very seriously like to pay it all back."

Granted, Lewis left himself the escape hatch of waiting until "markets normalize" to pay back this capital, but even so this statement means one of three things: (1) he's lying, (2) he's crazy, or (3) BofA really is in fairly decent shape.  I report, you decide.

Regulation

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:18 PM EDT
Bloomberg reports that new financial regulations are on their way:

The Obama administration is preparing an overhaul of U.S. banking rules that would force financial companies to keep more cash on hand in case their trading bets go wrong.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told lawmakers yesterday that changes will include “strong oversight, including appropriate constraints on risk-taking.” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the case of American International Group Inc. showed the “intense problem” of trading with insufficient capital to guard against losses.

This is probably good stuff, but one thing that I find persistently missing from these discussions is any sense of guiding principles. There are a million rules you might want to put in place to regulate the financial industry, and every one of them might individually sound sensible.  But what's the big picture?  What are you trying to accomplish?

If you asked me, for example, I'd toss out three big principles.  #1 is firmer regulation over leverage, wherever and however it occurs.  This would produce regulations like the one above that increases capital adequacy ratios, but it would also lead to similar oversight of hedge funds; an overhaul of how capital and assets are calculated; regulation of effective leverage embedded in complex derivatives; rules about off-balance-sheet vehicles; and so forth.

#2 would be a stronger commitment to act countercyclically.  That would produce things like rules designed to force the Fed to keep an eye on asset inflation as well as goods inflation; a dedication to limiting credit expansion as well as credit destruction; capital adequacy rules that weren't merely stronger, but that tightened during expansions and loosened during contractions; and stronger down payment requirements for mortgage loans.

#3, for lack of a better name, is a recognition that the global financial system could stand to have a little more sand in its gears.  Something to slow it down just a little bit.  This might include things like a small transaction tax; exchange trading for credit derivatives; and stronger transparency rules.

Now, I might be wrong about these principles, and I might be wrong about the specific regulations needed to support them.  Fine.  Suggest your own.  But rather than a huge hodgepodge of rules that might be good ideas on their own but might not really work together to accomplish what you want, I'd like to see a moderate, well-targeted set of rules aimed at fixing two or three big things.  The principles should guide what we do, not the other way around.

Questioning "Stability Operations" In Iraq & Afghanistan

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:15 PM EDT

Tom Ricks, writing at his new post at Foreign Policy, takes the release of the Army's new "Stability Operations Field Manual" as an opportunity to point out what he sees as a long-running problem: the military's self-assessment of its role in our two middle eastern wars is fundamentally off. Ricks:

...we didn't invade Iraq to provide stability, but to force change. Likewise in Afghanistan. And once we were there, we didn't aim for stability, but to encourage democracy, which (the thought is not original with me) in a region like the Middle East generally undermines stability. I mean, if all we wanted was stability, why not find a strongman and leave?

What we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, is instability operations. I don't think the U.S. military really has ever been comfortable with that mission, which was one reason we saw a lot of friction early on between the Bremer team trying to bring change and the Sanchez team simply trying to keep a lid on things. Personally, I think the mission of changing the culture of Iraq was nuts -- but that was the mission the president assigned the military.

H/T Democracy in America. I'm not sure how I feel about Ricks' sentiment. We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of "revolutionary operations," as Ricks states, but what we're trying to do now to is, partially but not completely, what the name of the manual suggests: stability ops.

No one is going look back years from now and use Iraq or even Afghanistan as a model for regime change or spreading democracy. But assuming that violence in Iraq doesn't flare up after we leave (which is a monumental "if") military historians may look to our actions in that country from 2007-2009 as a model for bringing stability to a war zone. Which means that not only is the manual aptly named, its potentially canonical. Of course, that's contingent on the surge's security gains being real and permanent, which I'm not sure I buy. Only time will tell.

Come See Rachel! (If You're in the Bay Area, That Is)

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 1:11 AM EDT
Would you like to meet Rachel Maddow?  Do you live near San Francisco?  Our fundraiser this Saturday with Maddow has been sold out for weeks, but we thought it might be nice to give away a pair of tickets to one of our blog readers.  (I'll be there too, in case you need even more incentive to come.)  If you're interested, just leave a comment and we'll choose a random winner on Thursday evening.  Make sure you're registered so we have an email address to contact you.  Good luck!

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The Three C's

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:49 AM EDT
Fred Kaplan writes that the Obama administration will soon have to choose its Afghanistan strategy: either CT (counterterrorism) or COIN (counterinsurgency).  Steve Hynd doesn't like either option: he suggests plain old C (containment) instead.  Read and decide.

Cruel and Unusual

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 11:41 PM EDT
Atul Gawande has a piece in the New Yorker arguing that lengthy periods of solitary confinement are so debilitating that it basically amounts to torture.  You can read the whole thing and decide for yourself, but I actually found this short passage to be the most convincing argument:

The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority in the case of a Colorado murderer who had been held in isolation for a month, Justice Samuel Miller noted that experience had revealed “serious objections” to solitary confinement:

“A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover suffcient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

If you go down the whole list of accepted norms in treating people — child labor, civil rights, treatment of the mentally ill, minimum housing standards, workplace safety, etc. — virtually everything that was even a close call in 1890 is universally reviled today.  Nobody's in favor of kids working in mills, Jim Crow laws, packed lunatic asylums, rat-infested slums, or miners dying of black lung.  Our penal system is apparently the exception.  But if we knew, even in 1890, that long-term solitary confinement is essentially barbaric, can there really be any question about it in 2009?

Twenty Years Ago Today

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 9:28 PM EDT

Twenty years after Exxon Valdez and we're still shipping it, pumping it, burning it. Twenty years since James Hansen published a prophetic paper foreseeing what we're now experiencing. A commenter from my earlier Exxon Valdez post lives on a 30,000 acre XOM oil lease in South Texas and made this film, which I like. This is what he/she had to say:

They dump all the time and don't care. It's horrible. Our ground water is full of BTEX and lots of clusters of leukemia around their old leases. The Railroad Commission turns a blind eye. I made a webpage: http://www.RanchoLosMalulos.com. I go around the lease and post stuff so you can all enjoy the soap opera of watching XOM dump. We sample stuff and put the lab results, have professional ground water monitoring wells done, it's so filthy. Exxon Mobil seems to get away with a lot in this world. Their commercials make me cringe.

Press Conference Notes

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 8:35 PM EDT
Obama better pick up the pace.  I'm about to fall asleep.  If he doesn't start bringing a little more pizazz to these things the networks are just going to pull their cameras and go home.

UPDATE: OK, this was good.  Ed Henry asked Obama why it took him a few days to respond to the AIG bonus scandal.  Answer: "It took me a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I say something."  Ba-da-bum!