2009 - %3, April

Carrie Prejean Makes 'No Offense' Ad for NOM

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 10:45 AM PDT

So far this week, I've been trying to ignore all the Miss California, Perez Hilton hoo-ha. But now there's news that Miss California Carrie Prejean, of "opposite marriage" fame, is going to star in a new ad by the National Organization for Marriage. The ad will be titled "No Offense." Which is ironic, really, because almost anytime someone prefaces a statement with "I'm not a racist, but..." or "No offense to anyone out there, but..." you can be sure they're about to say something racist or offensive.

Thus far, Prejean has depicted herself as a victim; a brave, strong, surgically enhanced victim persecuted for her religious views. NOM's breathy press release says that despite Prejean being "attacked viciously," the Miss USA contestant has "inspired a whole nation" by having the "courage" to speak up about her conservative Christian values. This victim stance is perfectly consistent with NOM's previous ad, "A Gathering Storm," in which Christians are threatened by cloudy gay skies and flashes of gay marriage lightening. I can't wait for the parodies of "No Offense." Giant Gay-Repellent Umbrella, anyone?

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CNN and Jim DeMint

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 10:42 AM PDT

This is annoying.  Here is CNN's Political Ticker today describing an interview with South Carolina senator Jim DeMint:

DeMint says he isn't worried. He denied that the GOP has become a southern party, attributing Republican losses in the northeast to some northern voters who have left the region and moved south hoping to avoid labor unions and "forced unionization."

I was all ready to bring the snark to the idea that people were moving south to avoid being press ganged into unions, but first I wanted to look up the actual transcript.  Here it is:

SANCHEZ: Why does it seem like the Republican Party is only going to the South, the Southern states, and the Democratic Party is starting to stay in the Northeast and then maybe branching out into some of the other areas, like Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter is leaving?  I mean, does that worry?

DEMINT: Well, it's not just politically. People are moving from the northeast and from the northern part of the country to the south for a lot of reasons. And I think you see heavy unionization and forced unionization in Pennsylvania and Michigan, these other states. And obviously they're very much for the Democrat big-government approach. But we see that falling apart with American auto companies. We see it falling apart all across the country.

Come on.  DeMint may not be doing himself any favors with this kind of head-in-the-sand stuff, and in any case it's not really true that there's any serious regional migration between north and south.  Still, he didn't say people were moving south because of unionization.  He said people were doing it "for a lot of reasons" and then, responding to Sanchez's question about why Dems were branching out into Pennsylvania, suggested that places like Pennsylvania and Michigan are friendly to the "Democrat big-government approach" because of their high unionization.  And he believes in his heart of hearts that this is falling apart and conservatism will prevail.  This is probably wrong too, but it's not nearly as risible as the notion that factory workers are fleeing south to avoid closed shops.  CNN's own summary got it wrong.  DeMint is a troglodyte, but this is fairly ordinary political blather, not the high-octane idiocy they made it out to be.

Economist James Galbraith: Bush Fiddled With Gov't Spending to Postpone Recession Effects

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 10:18 AM PDT

Last summer, economist James K. Galbraith predicted in Mother Jones that the Bush administration would increase government spending in 2008 in order to postpone the worst effects of the recession until after the next President took office:

The [$600 stimulus check most taxpayers received last year] isn't the only little Dutch boy thrown headlong at the dike this election year. Government spending, especially for defense, will be up: Military spending as a share of [gross domestic product] is expected to grow by $75 billion in fiscal 2008, enough to neutralize a 0.3 percent decline in GDP. Dick Cheney was secretary of defense for Bush 41; just before the 1992 election he engineered a big run-up in outlays, as the military restocked following the first Gulf War. (It was exposed in the first Clinton "Economic Report.") Is the Pentagon up to that trick again? I'd be astonished if it were not.

Now it seems Galbraith's prediction has proven true. GDP numbers for the first quarter of 2009 are out, and they don't look pretty. Galbraith writes in an email:

Federal Government spending was up 7.0 percent in the fourth quarter but DOWN 4 percent in the first. Looks to me, off-hand, like the old election-year trick, which I naturally predicted (in MJ) early last year. Octokyphosis, as Ed Tufte called it many years ago: humping in October.   Maybe a bit delayed, and too late to help John McCain.

A look at the actual numbers on government spending seem to confirm Galbraith's suspicions: there are big drops in defense consumption and gross investment between the Bush adminstration's last quarter and the Obama administration's first one. Don't believe it? Read Galbraith's original story and decide for yourself.

So Much For NCLB: Racial Achievement Gap Wide as Ever

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 9:56 AM PDT

Oh dear. Here's the bad news on minority educational achievement:

Between 2004 and last year, scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide, despite President George W. Bush's frequent assertions that the No Child law was having a dramatic effect.
Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law, the official description of which is "An Act to Close the Achievement Gap."...
The 2008 score gap between black and white 17-year-olds, 29 points in reading and 26 points in math, could be envisioned as the rough equivalent of between two and three school years' worth of learning, said Peggy Carr, an associate commissioner for assessment at the Department of Education.

When the Obama administration brings the bill up for reauthorization this year, I'm hoping to see the hard-headed, 'it takes a village' kind of thinking that can provide quality education for all our children. It takes after school programs, Saturday schools, and reform of the kinds of dysfunctional educational bureaucracies that stifle innovation and drive out the best teachers. It also takes communities doing their parts; overseeing homework, unplugging the TV, staying in close contact with the kids' teachers, policing their neighborhoods so kids can study in peace. Otherwise, the long term crisis of inner city education will continue in a world which becomes more highly technological and labor-unfriendly everyday.

White House Photos Now on Flickr

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 9:55 AM PDT

The White House has put an immense number of photos on Flickr for the public to view, copy, distribute, and remix. The candid shots of Obama and his family are pretty neat. Below, four photos of Obama playing or watching sports.

Obama sports photo montage: Obama sports photo montage

Left: Obama contests Education Secretary Arne Duncan's jump shot. Top right: Obama and Michelle react to their daughter Sasha's basketball game. Middle right: Obama is heckled by a man wearing an Obama shirt at a Wizards-Bulls basketball game in Washington DC. Obama went to support the Bulls. Bottom right: Obama and Biden practice putting with the White House in background.

Torture and Civilization

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 9:49 AM PDT

Christopher Orr weighs in with a utilitarian argument about why torture is bad:

When a group of combatants are badly outnumbered, or surrounded, or otherwise very, very unlikely to win a conflict, they have a considerable incentive to surrender — but only if they believe they will subsequently be treated with mercy. That is why individuals, and nations, surrender. The humane treatment of surrendered captives, therefore, is a crucial — arguably the crucial — understanding between adversaries if their conflict is to end in any way other than with the wholesale slaughter of the losers.

If arguments like this persuade anyone, I'm all for them.  Any port in a storm.  But ultimately these exercises in logic chopping never work.  Is torture OK against an enemy that refuses to give up?  Is torture OK in a non-combat setting?  Is torture OK if you somehow convince yourself that it will save the lives of your enemy in the long run by ending the war sooner?  In the end, you can always chop the logic a little bit finer if you're minded to.  It just doesn't work.

I don't have either the vocabulary or the literary sensibility to explain with any eloquence why I oppose torture, so I usually stay out of conversations like this.  Besides, they depress the hell out of me.  But for the record, it goes something like this.

I don't care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law.  I don't care about the difference between torture and "harsh treatment."  I don't care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists.  I don't care whether it "works."  I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement.  But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously.  In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn't be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn't be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there's no consensus yet.  Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world.  But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong.  Full stop.  It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians.  But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide.  Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great.  Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eyeblink.

Somebody else could explain this better than me.  But the consensus against torture is one of our civilization's few unqualified moral advances, and it's a consensus won only after centuries of horror and brutality.  We just can't lose it.

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This Just In: Feminism Is Not a Religion. Duh.

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 9:38 AM PDT

No wonder the world hates lawyers (wrote the blogger with a J.D.).

The Times is reporting that the court threw outRoy Den Hollander's suit against Columbia University for—get this—offering Women's Studies. Weirdly, the court rejected his brilliant argument that feminism is religion:

"Feminism is no more a religion than physics," the judge wrote, "and at least the core of the complaint therefore is frivolous."...The judge also disagreed with Mr. Den Hollander's claim that the judge should have recused himself from the suit because he attended Columbia.
Mr. Den Hollander, who had claimed that offering a course of study about one gender violated Title IX and the Constitution, assailed the judge as a feminist and said, "The only thing frivolous and absurd is men looking for justice in the courts of America."
"When it comes to men's rights, judges act with an arrogance of power, ignorance of the law and fear of the feminists," he said.

You have to check this guy's website to get the full crazy. I have the feeling that he one of 'those guys' who sees a beautiful woman...and gets very, very angry. 

AmEx Woes

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 8:49 AM PDT

Apparently some American Express customers are being told they have to send in copies of their tax returns if they want to keep their credit cards.  Gotta be a scam, right?  No one in their right mind would do that.

Nope.  It's for real.  AmEx must be in a world of hurt these days.

Kathleen Sebelius

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 8:16 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias ruminates on the meaning of yesterday's vote to (finally) confirm a Secretary of Health and Human Services:

It seems to me that if you can only get 65 votes for what should be an uncontroversial HHS appointment, then the odds of a broad bipartisan coalition for big picture health care reform are not so good.

....The prevailing spirit within the GOP is clearly that Obama is a very bad president and so they should vote “no” on his initiatives. Which is fine. But it means that if Obama wants to deliver on his campaign pledges, he needs to use every legal means at his disposal to just pass things over the objections of the minority that opposes him.

I had sort of the same thought yesterday.  I mean, I understand the political/fundraising motivations for voting no on Sebelius as a sop to the pro-life contingent in the GOP, but everyone knew there was no way it would ever make a difference.  It's not as if Obama would have turned around and nominated a pro-lifer to HHS, after all.  It's ridiculous.  But nearly the entire Republican caucus voted against her anyway, which means that their desire to work with Obama even at the most basic level of allowing a president to choose his own cabinet is less important than their desire to prove their absolute fealty to the conservative base.

Not a good sign — although I suppose there's an alternate reading that's less dire: if you know that Sebelius is going to be confirmed anyway, voting no is something of a freebie.  So maybe this doesn't really mean too much after all.  On balance, though, I think I'm with Matt.

Economic Update

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 7:56 AM PDT

So how's the economy doing?  Let's take a look!

New York Times: U.S. GDP shrank by 6.1% in the first quarter, far worse than the "consensus" prediction of 4.7%.

Bloomberg: A full third of the country's biggest banks need additional capital, according to leaked preliminary results of the Treasury's stress tests.

RGE Monitor: According to a government report leaked to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, bad assets in the German banking system total slightly over a trillion dollars.  Over half of bad assets worldwide are in the European banking system, which has done much less to recognize them than we have in the U.S.

Wall Street Journal: Business fixed investment in the U.S. was down a whopping 37.8% last quarter.

Want some good news to go with that?  Sorry!  Apparently personal consumption was up 2.2%, which is probably a mixed blessing, and home prices were down 18% compared to last year, but didn't quite fall at a record rate.  That's the best I can do.  Ed Yardeni tries to do better, but one of the green shoots on his list of reasons to feel optimistic is the fact that Portfolio magazine has shut down.  Put me down as unconvinced.