2009 - %3, November

Sleazy Web Marketing

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 1:46 PM EST

Have you ever purchased something online, pressed the "Continue" button, and then, months later, discovered that you had signed yourself up for a membership program that was charging your credit card 20 bucks a month for something you had never heard of and never knew you were buying?  Well, guess what: these scams are a multi-billion dollar business, they're partnered with lots of brand name sites you'd think you could trust, and they do everything they can to sign you up for their "services" without you knowing about it.

More here from Felix Salmon, but make sure your blood pressure is in good shape before you click over to read about it.  Previous background about legal harrassment of a blogger who wrote about this a couple of months ago here.  (Note: blood pressure warning still applies.)

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Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 1:10 PM EST

So how about that big 11-person fact-check that AP did of Sarah Palin's book?  Over at CJR, Greg Marx is unimpressed:

Leaving aside the issue of resource allocation, the question is: Did the fact check deliver?

Not so much — at least not if the phrase “fact check” is going to have any specific meaning....Even accepting all of the AP’s claims, several of the cases it mentions are as much matters of interpretation and analysis as factual accuracy. And in some, the Palin statements that it scrutinizes don’t even make factual claims — meaning that there’s not much to “check.”

....This sort of thing matters because, in an increasingly contested political landscape and wide-open media environment, there really is a need for fact checking....But for the idea of fact checking to have any weight — and any hope of broad credibility — it must mean something more specific than “contesting a statement that we disagree with.” When Sarah Palin talks about “Obama’s ‘death panel,’” she’s spreading misinformation that needs to be repudiated. When she talks about being beckoned by purpose, she’s being a politician. We need to recognize the difference.

I wasn't very impressed with AP's effort either, which is why I didn't blog about it at the time.  Somerby is pretty unthrilled too.  Better fact checking, please.

Collateral Damage

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 12:44 PM EST

Via Dan Drezner, Charli Carpenter tells us that although war crimes are down over the past couple of decades compared to historical averages, collateral damage is up.  Way up:

But collateral damage is not only increasing as a percentage of all civilian deaths. The number of collateral damage victims is also increasing over time in absolute terms. Between 1823 and 1900, 84 civilians per year on average were the victims of collateral damage. Since 1990, the number is 1688 per year — a twenty-fold increase.

Dan comments:

This finding, if it holds up, is surprising for two reasons.  First, the number of interstate wars has been trending downward for the last thirty years — so an increase in the absolute numbers of civilian collateral damage would not be expected.  Second, this bump in collateral damage also took place during a revolution in precision-guided munitions — which, in theory, was supposed to reduce the likelihood of collateral damage.

Note that these figures are only for interstate wars, not civil wars or local insurgencies.  And I wonder how much of it has to do, essentially, with reporting problems.  Intentional killing of civilians is far more vigorously condemned today than it was in the 19th century, which provides both individual soldiers and the military at large with enormous incentives to categorize all civilian deaths as "collateral."  Some of the decline in intentional murders is probably real — that widespread condemnation certainly has had some effect, after all — but probably not as much of it as we think.

Alternatively, this might just be an artifact of the time periods chosen for study.  The 1990s and beyond might have been an era of precision-guided bombs, but precision guided or not, they're still bombs, and bombs do a lot of collateral damage.  In the 19th century, it was all artillery and small arms, which are just fundamentally less likely to cause lots of collateral damage.  Still, the post-90s number is up even compared to the 1945-1989 period, so there's probably more to it than just that.

Other ideas?

The Bailout and the Future

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 12:22 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes about the knock-on effects of the government paying off all of AIG's obligations at 100 cents on the dollar:

Brad DeLong says that the loss of public trust due to the kid-gloves treatment of bankers has raised the probability of another Great Depression, because the public won’t support another round of bailouts even if it becomes desperately necessary. I agree — but I think the bigger cost is that we’ve greatly increased the chance of a Japanese-style lost decade, with I would now give roughly even odds of happening. Why? Because bank-friendly policies have squandered public trust in all government action: try talking to the general public about stimulus, and it’s all confounded in their minds with the deeply unpopular bailouts.

By itself, the AIG story would be damaging enough. But it’s part of a pattern — and that pattern has ended up undermining the economy’s prospects, big time.

It's surprisingly hard to disagree with this.  The most optimistic take, I suppose, is that the economy will continue to recover slowly, there won't be another big shock that requires extraordinary government action, and we'll get out of this OK.  And I suppose that's still the most likely scenario.  But public anger over the bank bailout, which was blazing earlier in the year, hasn't really abated.  Sure, the tea parties are mostly over, but anger over the bailout is still smoldering, and it's pretty likely to increase as we continue to see headline after headline about how happily Wall Street is recovering in the middle of a deep recession thanks to all those bailout dollars.  Congress could tamp down some of this anger if it enacted some serious regulatory reforms over the next few months, but what are the odds of that?  Call me a pessimist, but I don't think they're very good.

Is Spending Recovering?

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 11:50 AM EST

Over at TNR, Zubin Jelveh puts up this graph of consumer spending and notes that it's turned up since August.  Last month it even crossed above the zero mark, meaning that consumer spending is up a bit from the same period last year.

But the great home equity ATM is gone, and that was a big part of what drove increases in consumer spending in previous years as homeowners took out enormous HELOCs to amp up an unsustainable lifestyle.  Without that, will we start seeing increases of 3.5% anytime soon?

A new study by the Boston Fed's Daniel Cooper suggests that we shouldn't be overly concerned with the impact of declining home-equity extraction on spending. Cooper argues that only the credit-constrained (that's economist shorthand for those with little access to credit) borrowed heavily against their homes to consume. He estimates that an 11% decline in housing wealth in 2008 lead to only a 0.75% fall in non-housing-related spending. In other words, declining home prices could only have a small impact on people's willingness to spend. The basic reason is that, in a given year, the majority of homeowners are not credit constrained, so a big drop in home prices shouldn't affect their spending ability (that is, if you believe Cooper and Willem Buiter's contention that the housing wealth effect is really the housing-as collateral effect).

But isn't the bigger question not the impact of one single factor on spending, but where increased spending is going to come from at all?  Basically, it can come from (a) wages going up, (b) increased debt, or (c) spending down savings.  Real wages have gone up a bit lately thanks to negative inflation, but that's strictly a short-term blip.  I don't think anyone expects wages to increase in the future at more than their historical 1-2% rate (1% if you count only cash wages, 2% or so if you count healthcare expenditures too).  Increased debt is out of the question too.  Consumers are paying down debt, not increasing it.  And savings are going up, not down.

None of this stuff has to last forever, and eventually all the deleveraging will be over and we can return to fundamental growth rates.  But even then, with debt and savings neutral, that growth rate is going to be determined by wage growth.  In the near future, at least, it's hard to see how that gets us back to 3.5%.

Days of Whines and Rogues: Palin's Persecution Complex

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 11:23 AM EST

If you can stand to read one more thing about Sarah Palin's overhyped autobiography Going Rogue, have a look at Thomas Frank's takedown in today’s Wall Street Journal, called "The Persecution of Sarah Palin." Frank argues that the supposedly tough, indefatigable Palin—the woman who shoots wolves from helicopters and is pround of her high school nickname "Sarah Barracuda"—has in fact drawn virtually all of her political capital from depicting herself as a victim.  

Remember when, as First Lady, Hillary Clinton was ridiculed for talking about the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her husband’s presidency? The conspiracy against Palin, if we are to believe her take on things, is vaster still. It includes not only everyone to the left of William McKinley, but also everyone who ever contradicted, annoyed, or said mean things about her. Furthermore, it’s these malevolent enemies, and never Palin herself, who are responsible for every one of her screwups, shortcomings, and humiliations.

Members of Palin’s base—who similarly tend to see themselves as victims of the tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading left-wing freak show—appear to wholeheartedly embrace, and even celebrate, this etiology. Frank writes that conservatives "love a whiner," and continues:

It is her mastery of the lament that explained former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s appeal last year, and now her knack for self-pity is on full display in her book, “Going Rogue.” This is the memoir as prolonged, keening wail, larded with petty vindictiveness. With an impressive attention to detail, Ms. Palin settles every score, answers every criticism; locates a scapegoat for every foul-up, and fastens an insult on every critic, down to the last obscure Palin-doubter back in Alaska.

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Oliver North Goes Off the Climate Deep End

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 11:12 AM EST

Oliver North is using climate change denialism to fundraise for his non-profit group Freedom Alliance. In a six-page stream-of-consciousness fundraising letter, North warns of the "liberty killing 'Cap and Trade' boondoggle" that socialists are plotting in response to the "phony climate 'crisis.'" The solution? Write him a check.

Climate change would appear to have little connection to Freedom Alliance's stated mission, which is "to advance the American heritage of freedom by honoring and encouraging military service, defending the sovereignty of the United States and promoting a strong national defense." And it's not clear which roles on North's resume—his past notoriety in the Iran-Contra scandal or his current gig as a Fox News host and commentator—best qualify him to weigh in on climate science.

Nevertheless, in his letter and a petition sent to supporters, North mashes together all manner of wacky climate change denier talking points. The basic premise is that Barack Obama, Democrats in Congress, and climate scientists are socialists hell-bent on using a faked climate crisis to control the masses. North argues that "there is no proof of man-made global warming," that "the world has actually been cooling for the last ten years," and that "there is no evidence that greenhouse gases have anything to do with global warming in the first place." Plus, he points out: "If man is solely responsible for the warming of the earth, how did the ice age ever end without the help of automobiles and coal burning factories?"

"[T]he bottom line is this," North writes. "The entire 'global warming' scare is based on a series of accepted myths put forward by socialists looking to redistribute wealth, phony politicians, greedy scientists and dim-witted wealthy elites (see Hollywood)."

North asks supporters to sign a petition to Obama that questions whether glaciers are really melting, and argues that limiting emissions via a "cap-and-tax" scheme would be an attempt to "change nature or God's will." He also asks supporters to shell out money—up to $1,000—to help his group defend America from this sinister plot.

He adds this P.S. at the end:

Again, ever wonder why the liberals now always try to use the new term "catastrophic climate change" rather than "global warming." It's because it allows them to blame EVERY weather event (heat waves, blizzards, floods, draughts, hurricanes, etc.) on you, me, and our current use of fossil fuels. The goal? To destroy our way of life and con us into giving away billions of dollars to solve a non-crisis we have no power to prevent, even if it were real! I hope and pray that you understand – and that you will sign our PETITION TO PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA and rush it and your gift of $20, $25, $35, $50, $75, $100, or more back to me here at Freedom Alliance today.

An Inconvenient Bill

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 11:11 AM EST

Barbara Boxer celebrated the passage of her climate bill out of the Environment and Public Works committee with a festive gathering for environmentalists and her Democratic colleagues on Tuesday, featuring cookies, coffee, and billionaire philanthropist Ted Turner. It was hard to tell that Boxer was only able to pass the bill out of her panel by skipping the markup, and that the legislation has basically been put on ice until sometime in 2010.

"I think it's important to see how far we've come," said Boxer, motioning to giant cue cards her staff had prepared depicting a timeline of climate legislation developments to date.

But if there's one thing that this week has made clear, it's how far the US has to go. At a meeting with Harry Reid and other committee chairs on Monday, Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus indicated he won't mark up his portion of the climate bill until January. Over the weekend, world leaders agreed to put off a binding global deal until sometime next year.

Boxer, who has long been the Senate's lead voice on climate, acknowledged the reality: her legislation is "an inconvenient bill." The health care debate has pushed the climate issue back repeatedly, and now Boxer and others are indicating that financial reform and perhaps even another jobs-focused stimulus may push ahead of climate on the Senate calendar.

O.J. Simpson and KSM

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 10:56 AM EST

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is worried that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be acquitted—just like O.J. Simpson was. A lot of people thought Simpson was guilty, Grassley told Attorney General Eric Holder a a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Monday morning—but Simpson was acquitted anyway.

Rove, Cheney, Gingrich and Kristol Fail To Rally 9/11 Trial Foes

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 10:40 AM EST

On Monday, Karl Rove sent a tweet to his 92,000 followers: "Don't sit out: 9:30am 11/18 Dirksen Senate Bldg Rm G-50 to oppose Atty Gen's testimony on trying terrorists on U.S. soil." On Tuesday, Newt Gingrich dispatched a similar message to his 1.2 million Twitter devotees: "Join @keepamericasafe at 9:30am Wed at Dirksen Senate Bldg to protest Holder's testimony on bringing terrorists to US." Keep America Safe is Elizabeth Cheney's new hawkish group—neocon godfather Bill Kristol is one of its three board members—and on Tuesday it tweeted followers: "Reminder 9:30 am show Holder and Obama what you think about the terror trial decision." The Keep American Safe website also posted a "call to action," urging protesters to storm the Senate on Wednesday morning, when Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled to testify about the Obama administration's plan to bring 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other terrorism detainees to New York City to stand trial. Cheney's outfit asked its supporters to send Obama and his allies in Congress a clear message: "WE WILL FIGHT YOU ALL THE WAY."

No such message was delivered on Wednesday morning. When Holder arrived at  the committee room in the Dirksen Building, there were no demonstrators, no angry mob. Some 9/11 relatives who oppose trying KSM in New York were in the house. (There are 9/11 families on both sides of this debate.) But the scene was the same as that accompanying most hearings. There was not even a standing-room-only crowd. Plenty of empty chairs could be found in the seating section for the general public. No throng of irate citizens was gathered in the hallway or outside the building. The Capitol Hill police reported no signs of any protest. This was no tea party. Essentially, no one had responded to the urgent pleas from Rove, Gingrich, Kristol, and Cheney.

The hearing did heat up—because of the Republican senators present. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) slammed the KSM decision, charging that it demonstrates that for Obama "fighting terrorism is not the priority it once was." He excoriated the Obama administration for believing "we can return to a pre-9/11 mindset."

This was no surprise. Republicans pounced on this issue immediately. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) went on the House floor earlier this week and assailed the move, suggesting that because of the KSM trial, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's daughter could be "kidnapped at school" by a terrorist. (Bloomberg supports bringing KSM to Manhattan to face justice just blocks away from where the World Trade Towers once stood.) No doubt, conservatives will continue to bang this drum, claiming that the pending KSM trial somehow indicates that Obama is not serious about national security. But when it came to rousing right-wing foot-soldiers for this effort, Rove, Gingrich, Kristol, and Cheney had no luck. Next time they might want to consider outsourcing the job to Michele Bachmann.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter. Ditto for Nick Baumann