2009 - %3, September

Michael Steele, Here's a Newspaper Article You Should Read

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 3:06 PM EDT

On slow news days—that is, when Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin haven't said anything—there's always GOP chairman Michael Steele.

He made website headlines earlier this week when he chastised a 23-year-old woman after she had interrupted him at a Howard University meeting to say that everyone in the country deserved access to good health care, citing the case of her own mother who recently died of cancer because she couldn't afford chemo medications. Then on Friday, Steele looked particularly out of it within a Washington Post story on the stimulus and the economy.

The front-page article reported that "economists generally agree that the package has played a significant part in stabilizing the economy. They are less certain about the size of the impact." The piece quoted a former assistant Treasury secretary from the Bush-Cheney administration, Phillip Swagel, who said President Obama's stimulus package is "starting to play a role, helping us to have slightly positive rather than slightly negative GDP growth." It cited IHS Global Insight, an economic consulting firm, which estimated the stimulus has added 1 percent to gross domestic product this year. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Economy.com and a former John McCain supporter, told the newspaper, "I don't think it's any accident that the economy has gone out of recession and into recovery at the same time stimulus is providing its maximum economic impact."

So there's a consensus: the stimulus package has produced results. Enter Steele. The article reported,

On Thursday, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele discounted the impact of the stimulus plan. "Vice President Biden has been trying for 200 days to convince the American people the president's economic stimulus experiment is working, but just like their government-run health-care scheme, no one is buying it," he said.

Obviously, Steele had not consulted with Zandi, Swagel, IHS Global Insight, or most economists. There are indeed questions an administration foe can raise about the stimulus. Has it been quick enough? Big enough? Targeted correctly? Is the bang worth the bucks? Only a hack with no regard for reality would insist that it has absolutely not worked and that no one believes it has had an impact. Yet that's what Steele said, proving once again that he is a guy who's hard to take seriously.

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It's All About Affordability

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 2:50 PM EDT

As long as we're on the subject of what's really important in the healthcare negotiations right now, you might want to check out Jordan Rau's piece at the Kaiser Health Network.  It's all about affordability: regardless of whether or not the final bill includes a public option, health insurance will still be virtually unaffordable for a lot of people.  And the key to fixing that in the real-world depends on the level of federal subsidies provided to low and medium income families who don't have employer insurance and have to buy insurance themselves.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  Those subsidies are where the bulk of the cost of healthcare reform comes from, and figuring out a way to finance it is by far the biggest problem Congress faces.  Go read.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 2:02 PM EDT

From Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, wondering just what President Obama is going to do with all those letters that schoolkids send him after his classroom speech on Tuesday:

There are going to be questions about — well, what are they are going to do with those names and is that for the purpose of a mailing list?

Sometimes the classics are best, you know?  Fox News prepared the ground for this with its suggestion a couple of weeks ago that Obama was trying to create an enemies list when it asked for examples of healthcare myths, but now the Obama team is apparently creating an enemies list for future Democratic presidents.  Or a true believers list.  Or something.  Clever!

You know, this whole first-day-of-school-presidential-speech thing might not have been the greatest idea in the world, but the reaction to it makes death panels look practically sane by comparison.  Socialism!  Cult worship!  Jedi mind control!  And the worst part of it, just as it was with the death panels, is how eager party leaders have been to fan the flames of this stuff.  If it was just talk radio, that would be bad enough.  But Tim Pawlenty is a governor.  And he's even reputed to be a fairly boring sort of governor.  But he knows the drill: if you want to survive in the Republican Party today, you have to prove that you can't be out-crazied.  Consequences be damned.

This stuff just has to backfire on them eventually, doesn't it?  Please tell me yes.

Fighting the Power

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 1:21 PM EDT

For the last couple of weeks Bob Somerby has been complaining that liberals are lousy at message framing.  Conservatives have their big government/low taxes message down to a science, but we just flail around.  Flail, flail, flail.  Finally, today, he offers up his take on what our fundamental message ought to be:

You can’t expect Obama to compensate for the lack of a strong, well-established counter-narrative. But if we ever do build such a narrative, it would probably turn on these points:

First, it would turn on some well-crafted statement of an obvious fact: Big Moneyed Interests will try to loot you. They’ll do it every time — till they’re stopped.

Second, it might turn on a second obvious fact: Big Moneyed Interests will send tribunes out to deceive you. They will lie in your faces — till they’re stopped.

If Democrats and liberals hadn’t dozed all these years, we might have familiar, well-crafted versions of these obvious truths at our disposal. Voters might have heard those well-crafted statements many, many times....But if such messaging pre-existed, Obama could talk about the conduct of the insurance companies — and the things he said would fit into a larger framework, a framework voters pre-understood. But on your side, that larger framework simply doesn’t exist. Your side has slumbered, burbled and dozed. We are simply too lazy and indifferent — and too bought — to spend time on such messaging.

Well, I'm all for this.  Bill Clinton did yeoman work moving the Democratic Party toward the center and helping it regain power, but unfortunately he did it at the expense of also transforming it into a "business friendly" party.  It would be nice to turn that around.

But how?  Unfortunately, even among those of us who aren't bought one way or another, there are an awful lot of people like me: business skeptical, perhaps, but not really business hostile.  I think the business community need to be treated like teenagers on a football team: lots of good energy and good hustle, but they work best when they're guided by a firm hand.  I want corporations regulated fairly strictly, but not because I bear most of them any malice or anything.  I just know that, like any teenager, they'll test their boundaries to the breaking point, so those boundaries need to be clear and well enforced.

That's not a real clean message, though.  Better go with Bob's instead, I guess.

Did Embassy Fire Hazing Victims?

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 12:53 PM EDT

UPDATE: The news POGO is getting from Afghanistan suggests that the "right people are being fired." See below.

Earlier, I noted the possibillity that the US embassy in Kabul may have fired Armor Group guards who were victims of sexually-tined hazing rituals, along with some of the perpetrators of them.  The Project on Government Oversight just released a statement from the group's executive director, Danielle Brian, and she is indeed concerned that some of "unwilling participants" may have been axed:

POGO is pleased that the State Department has finally taken decisive steps to bring the Kabul security guard scandal. under control.  We remain very concerned, however, with certain elements of this action.  POGO has no solid information of the identities of those reported to have been removed.  We have been told people are being fired for simply being in the photographs.  We do know a number of those were unwilling participants.

We also want to hear that the supervisors who were responsible for this debacle are being held fully accountable and not simply allowed to resign and go to another contractor.

I have a call into the State Department seeking comment. I'll update the post when I hear back.

UPDATE: More news is coming in from POGO.

A quick update from the ground in Kabul: we've heard that guards at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan are very pleased with the State Department's actions so far, with one source saying guards feel as if they've been "liberated from prison."  State Department investigators have been conducting thorough, respectful interviews and are not asking guards if they shared information with POGO.  The right people are being fired and it looks like we're on the way to restoring an atmosphere of professionalism at the U.S. Embassy.

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Zen Koan of the Day

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 12:45 PM EDT

From Ezra Klein, meditating on what it will take to get Republicans to act like grownups:

The lesson of this process has been that the only path to bipartisanship — if one in fact exists — is effective partisanship.

Indeed.  But he's right.  Call me Pollyanna if you want, but I continue to think that beneath all the hysterical political theater of August, not that much has changed.  Support for healthcare reform has always been broad but shallow, and to the extent that some of that support has turned into opposition, that opposition is also shallow.  Among independents, there's a good chance that a lot of that newfound opposition can be turned around as the stage moves back to Washington DC and the conversation becomes a little quieter.

What's more, I think Republicans know this, which is why they're continuing to bluster so loudly.  For reasons that have always escaped me, the media takes conservative bluster a lot more seriously than liberal bluster, and Republicans are taking advantage of this by trying to win the debate simply by loudly claiming they've won the debate.  But they know they haven't, and if Democrats seriously hold out the threat of passing healthcare reform via reconciliation — which requires only 51 votes and would therefore produce legislation much more liberal than a bill passed via standard order — Republicans are likely to give in and start negotiating in tolerably good faith.  Enough of them, anyway, to pass a bill.

This is the real threat, I think, not all the clamor pro and con over the public option.  The reconciliation process has problems of its own, but in the end Democrats can do whatever they want if Joe Biden is willing to play along and they don't lose their nerve.  Republicans know this.  If it becomes clear that Democrats are serious, they'll cave and Obama will get his bill.

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Yet More Airstrikes in Afghanistan

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 12:10 PM EDT

Another NATO attack, this time on a pair of trucks hijacked by the Taliban, another public relations disaster:

The Taliban had stolen the trucks and were driving them across Char Dara district, an insurgent stronghold, when the vehicles got stuck on a bridge, officials and locals said.

....Local Afghan security forces alerted the international NATO-led command, known as the International Security Assistance Force, who then called in an airstrike. The bomb struck the tankers, causing a huge blast that immediately killed those in the vicinity and burned many others in the area, locals said.

The NATO-led command, in a statement, said it had "observed insurgent activity and assessed civilians were not in the area" before ordering the strike.

Unfortunately, it turned out the when the truck got stuck on the bridge, villagers flocked out to start siphoning fuel away.  So when the trucks were attacked and exploded, lots of villagers were killed along with lots of insurgents.

And our man Hamid Karzai?  Naturally he stepped right up and thundered that "targeting civilian men and women is not acceptable."  Thanks, Hamid.  That should help keep things calm.

More troops aren't likely to help with this sort of thing.  Maybe there was an Afghan screwup, maybe there was a NATO screwup, maybe no one screwed up and it's just impossible to ever be 100% sure that civilians aren't around.  So it's going to happen again.  And apparently, when it does, Karzai will make our position even worse and more dangerous than it already is by making the most inflammatory possible suggestion about how it happened.  Does this really sound like a country we should be sending more troops to?

Coffee Beanery Foes Lose House

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 12:05 PM EDT

Back in March, we ran a story about Deborah Williams and Richard Welshans, a Maryland couple who alleged that they’d been defrauded by the Coffee Beanery, a national coffee franchiser.  They tried to sue to recover some of the more than $1 million they lost after opening a Coffee Beanery cafe, alleging that the company had failed to disclose the fact that most of their franchises failed within three years rather than netted $250,000 in profits, as the company officials had promised. Instead, the couple landed in mandatory arbitration hell. A private arbitrator, hired by Coffee Beanery, ruled against them and ordered them to pay Coffee Beanery more than $100,000, which included the opposing counsels’ lunch tab during the hearing.

The couple fought the decision all the way through the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which earlier this year overturned the arbitrator’s decision, paving the way for Williams and Welshans to sue the Coffee Beanery in Maryland civil court. But Welshans and Wiliams might have had a much happier ending to their story if they’d been able to access the civil justice system from the beginning, and had their complaint heard in a real court of law, with a real judge and a real jury. Instead, the failure of their franchise plus the arbitration and expensive legal battle sent them into bankruptcy. Now, they are about to lose their house. Last week, Deborah wrote to me saying that their lovely waterfront Annapolis home was going into foreclosure and they had 45 days to leave the premises. In an email she writes:

We now have nothing left to lose. We thought that if by a miracle, we should win our appeal we would finally achieve Justice. But even that was not to be. We are the first franchisee in the State of Maryland to be denied the protection of Maryland Law. I'm crying as I write this, because for the first time I realize our backs are broken and there seems to be nothing left for us. We don't know where we will go. Renting will be almost impossible, I still have not been able to find a job, and then there is the bankruptcy. As you can imagine, any landlord would determine us a high risk.

White House Slams Israeli Settlement Expansion

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 11:19 AM EDT

The Obama administration wants Israel to stop building and expanding settlements in the occupied territories. But Israel is approving construction of hundreds of new houses in the West Bank and finishing some 2,500 others. The White House is not pleased. Press secretary Robert Gibbs just sent out a statement that included these paragraphs:

We regret the reports of Israel's plans to approve additional settlement construction. Continued settlement activity is inconsistent with Israel's commitment under the Roadmap.
As the President has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate.

It looks like the administration is taking a pretty hard line about holding Israel to its Roadmap commitments. How will the Israeli government respond?

In Defense of Fact-Checking

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 11:12 AM EDT

What does Michael Kinsley have against fact-checkers? Apparently the WaPo columnist decided today was a good day to bully the little guys. Now why would he want to do that? Fact-checking, the often thankless task of anonymous magazine interns and staff, is the unsung hero and good-news story of an industry struggling to find any good news at all. Fact-checking is the meticulous and often infuriating pursuit of every detail that goes into a story, checking and rechecking, confirming with sources and scouring of databases and archives for references that may live strong on Wikipedia, but are only confirmable at their headwaters. Does Kinsley not remember the Jayson Blair era? Do we want to go back to everyone wondering if the description of the view from a porch means they're reading make-believe?

Kinsley uses the Times' Corrections as an example of why the whole practice is a waste of time:

Who can take facts seriously after reading the daily "Corrections" column in the New York Times? Although the purpose of this column is to demonstrate the Times's rectitude about taking facts seriously, the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous.

The bizarre and trivial corrections he links to include: a map of Georgia putting the 8th district on the border with Alabama rather than in the center of the state where it belongs, the wrong country where a new minerals mine is opening (Canada not Australia), and correcting the street location of a London bookstore featured in a column.

Here's what Kinsey doesn't get: if you get the so-called little stuff wrong then people don't believe you on what you really want them to care about. Readers are smart, and lots of them pay attention. And when they read something, even something tiny, that they know is wrong they, understandably, assume the whole article is suspect.

At Mother Jones we have a tireless team of fact-checkers who pore over all of our content, spending sometimes weeks or months on a single story. They end up amassing a veritable archive of expertise on each subject and our articles end up better, more credible, to be read without cause for pause or doubt. Because it happens that reporters, unlike Kinsley who's had a "blameless journalistic career" (we'll assume he's playing sarcastic here), are capturing and describing complex happenings that they haven't lived for decades. So it's understandable that some of the particulars get shifted, confused, transposed, whatever. We all make mistakes, it's just grand when we have people around who can help us fix them.

If you know anyone who wants to join us in our very own war on errorism have them check out MoJo's internship program. True Kinsley, it's an often bizarre job where we ask factcheckers to go to the ends of the earth to confirm dates and map locations and even oft-repeated historical asides, but we guarantee, in the end, it's far from trivial.