2010 - %3, August

Obama and the Surge

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 9:19 AM PDT

Marc Ambinder comments on Barack Obama's primetime Iraq speech tonight:

Now then: will he take the bait dangling from Republican hooks and give President Bush credit for the surge? He will telephone President Bush earlier in the day, presumably to thank the president for his judgment in a way that does not acknowledge that his own opposition to the surge was (in retrospect) incorrect. Officials make the argument that people read a lot into the surge, and that a number of different factors, some of them independent of the surge, contributed to the taming of the insurgency. Obama won't get into those arguments there, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with the historical narrative that has President Bush mistakenly choosing to go to war in Iraq and then supporting a strategy that brought about its close more quickly.

Since it's a slow news day, let's mull this over. First take: can you imagine anything that would piss off the liberal base more than acknowledging that the surge worked? You'd be able to hear the steam coming out of lefty ears from sea to shining sea. Second take: Even if he decided to do it anyway, would it be worthwhile? If he wants to be honest, Obama would have to at least mention all those other factors that Ambinder mentions, namely that the reduction in violence in 2007 was quite clearly the result of 4 S's: Surge, Sadr ceasefire, Sectarian cleansing, and Sunni Awakening. But is this too much to talk about? And would it seem churlish to acknowledge the surge and then immediately try to take some of the credit away from it?

Third take: Forget it. Not only would mentioning the surge piss off liberals, but it would also imply some kind of "victory" in Iraq, and surely Obama can't be dimwitted enough to come within a light year of claiming that, can he? Of course not. Not with sporadic violence back in the news and Iraqi leaders still stalemated on forming a government five months after the March elections.

So I'll predict no direct mention of the surge. And since I'm usually wrong about this kind of stuff, I suppose you should try to lay down some money right away on Obama mentioning the surge tonight. But I still don't think he'll do it.

POSTSCRIPT: And now for a usage question. What's the right way to refer to four things that start with the letter S? Should it be 4 Esses? 4 Ses? 4 S's? Or what? They all seem pretty awkward to me.

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The Unlisted Phone Number Scam

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 8:44 AM PDT

David Lazarus complains about one of his favorite bugaboos today, and since it's one of mine too I'll quote him:

This month, Time Warner Cable more than doubled its fee for an unlisted number to a whopping $1.99 a month, or nearly $24 a year....That's a recurring fee — now one of the highest of its type in the telecom industry — for something Time Warner isn't doing for customers.

....Time Warner's fee is all the more remarkable because the company doesn't produce its own phone book. It pays Sprint to compile all its customers' names and numbers, and to then pass them along to whichever phone company dominates a particular market for inclusion in that firm's directory. Just to be clear: That's $1.99 a month not to be in a phone book that Time Warner doesn't even publish.

AT&T's and Verizon's fees are a little more understandable. After all, they make extra cash selling ads in their phone books. The more people who choose not to be listed, the less valuable the directory becomes to advertisers, so the phone company wants to discourage people from leaving.

But Time Warner isn't in the phone book business. Its recurring fee for unlisted numbers is a money grab, pure and simple.

This is one of my pet peeves not because I have to pay this fee — my phone number isn't unlisted — but because it's symptomatic of the looking glass way that we treat privacy in this country. Lazarus points out that the cost of unlisting a phone number is basically zero since it's just a matter of flipping a flag in a database, and that the only reason Time Warner gets away with charging so much is because that's what the market will bear. People who want unlisted phone numbers are willing to pay $24 per year in protection money to get one.

For fly-by-night operators, this is annoying but fine. They have the right to collect information and publish it, whether it annoys me or not. But phone companies are regulated monopolies. If I want phone service, I have no choice but to contract with a tiny number of suppliers who then have privileged information about me. Should I also pay them protection money for withholding my Social Security number or my date of birth from their phone books? After all, their access to that data is all due to their privileged position too.

As a society, we value privacy. We shouldn't allow regulated utilities to decide who gets it and who doesn't. Let the phone companies make money by selling services, not protection.

(Also worth noting: as cell phones and Skype and Google Phone become more popular, the only people who will have to pay for unlisting their phone numbers are increasingly likely to be the old and poor. Do we really want to endorse what's basically a $24/year tax on the most vulnerable segments of the population?)

Reid Hits Angle on "Spoiled" Workers Remark

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 7:26 AM PDT

You knew this was one coming. The campaign of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a new ad out hitting his opponent, conservative Sharron Angle, for one of her most controversial claims, made in June: that unemployment insurance makes people "spoiled." (Here's the video of that claim.)

Reid's ad features Nevadan Debra Harding, who the ad says has been out of work for a year, pushing back against Angle's positions on unemployment, including her stated opposition to extending jobless benefits. And in response to Angle's claim that unemployed Americans "want to be dependent on the government," Harding replies, "I'm not spoiled and I don't want to be dependent on anybody. If Sharron Angle doesn't get that, she should be out of work. Not people like me."

And of course the 35-second ad concludes with a popular Reid campaign tagline: "Sharron Angle: Just too extreme."

Here's the ad:

Why Is Obama Talking about Iraq?

Tue Aug. 31, 2010 6:54 AM PDT

In his PoliticsDaily.com column, David Corn asks a basic question: why is President Barack Obama giving an Oval Office speech on Tuesday night about Iraq. He writes:

Speeches from the Oval Office are usually reserved for the most pressing and profound matters of a presidency. And this partial end of the Iraq war -- the United States will still have 50,000 troops stationed there -- is a significant event. It demonstrates that Obama has kept a serious campaign promise: to end this war.

But with the economy foundering -- many of the recent stats are discouraging -- most Americans are probably not yearning above all for a report on Iraq and likely will not be all that impressed with Obama's promise-keeping on this front. The main issue remains jobs, especially as the congressional elections approach.

Summer is essentially done. It's back-to-school and back-to-work time for many of us. But on Obama's first days after his Martha Vineyard's vacation, he's devoting (at least in public) more time and energy to foreign policy matters than the flagging economy. Worried Democrats must be livid. (Most House Democrats are still campaigning in their districts and are not yet back in Washington to gripe about their president.)

And this address is no slam-dunk:

He can't declare victory. He can only declare a murky end to a murky war. That's not going to rally the Democrats' base or win over independents. It was not mandatory for Obama to deliver such a high-profile speech. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Baghdad to commemorate this milestone. The administration has conducted other events regarding the end of combat operations. It's been duly noted.

The Iraq war, though, raises tough questions for Obama. For example, at the White House press briefing on Monday, Gibbs was peppered with queries about whether Obama believes Bush's so-called surge worked or did not. Gibbs did not provide a direct answer -- and the question is indeed more complicated than many people assume. But Obama, who did not support the surge, clearly does not want to be mired in a debate over it.

Corn posed a related question at the press briefing:

I asked Gibbs about an apparent contradiction in Obama's position. When he was campaigning for the presidency in 2007, he said, without uncertainty, that the Iraq war had rendered the United States less safe:

"I don't believe that we are safer now than we were after 9/11 because we have made a series of terrible decisions in our foreign policy. We went into Iraq, a war that we should have never authorized and should not have been waged. It has fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment. It has, more importantly, allowed us to neglect the situation in Afghanistan."

Yet last week, Obama cut a video thanking GIs who had served in Iraq, or are serving there now, saying that their work has "made America safer." Which is it? Was the United States safer or not safer due to the Bush-Cheney war? As an opponent of the war, Obama had an unambiguous stance. Now, as commander in chief, he understandably does not want to say that American GIs sacrificed -- and were sacrificed -- in vain. So he praises the soldiers for an achievement he does not, or did not, believe was real. Such rhetorical gymnastics, even if necessary, do not make for a clear message. In reply to my question, Gibbs said he would have to review the president's remarks in the video -- a classic press secretary dodge.

Corn concludes:

The Iraq war was a mistake. That remains Obama's view, according to Gibbs. And though he has ended combat missions, there is no good drum to beat. (I'd bet he won't dwell on the fact that tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians -- if not a lot more -- lost their lives due to the war.) The economy is in peril. The president's party is in peril. There's not a lot of time before Judgment Day. If the Dems lose seats in Congress, Obama will confront a much tougher slog in Washington. Given all that, he must be exceedingly savvy and efficient in how he invests whatever political capital he holds. The end of the official war in Iraq is a historic moment. It does warrant reflection and notice. But for a president wrestling with a lousy economy and facing an uneasy electorate, this is not the ground where he should be mounting an offensive.

Meanwhile, Corn's colleague at PoliticsDaily, Jill Lawrence, has an interesting wish regarding Obama's speech:

On his list of campaign promises, the president wants to check the box next to "responsibly get us out of Iraq" and quickly move on.

But for me, that's not enough. I want to hear about first principles from him – principles that determine when we go to war. I want to hear about fact-based decision-making – why we go to war. I want to hear about smart planning and contingency planning and choosing competent people to lead us into, and out of, potential quagmires. In short, I want to know I can once again trust my government.

Will Obama use the speech to re-argue the past and criticize the Bush administration? That might make the address especially notable. Still, this would not do much to convince voters that Obama and the Democrats are working 24/7 to juice up the economy.

Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History

Tue Aug. 31, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Yes, the US military really did produce a cartoon instructional manual about Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And the American government is by no means the only entity to use cartoons in humorless way.

Indeed, if you're going to shove your political agenda down people's throats, there may be no more entertaining method than comics. Which is precisely why Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History is so inviting and unnerving. In this collection of cartoon agitprop, Fredrik Strömberg, a Swedish comics expert, surveys everything from evangelical Archie strips and hysterical Cold War fantasies to '70s feminist comics and 9/11 kitsch. Much of the material is laughable, but artifacts like legendary cartoonist Milt Caniff's wartime pamphlet "How to Spot a Jap" remain vivid illustrations of comics' inflammatory potential.

Glenn Beck's Followers Sound Off [VIDEO]

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

At Saturday's Restoring Honor rally, Mother Jones talked to some of the Glenn Beck faithful about government, religion, and socialism.

Here's a look:

 

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Is Mt. Rushmore Too Close to Hallowed Ground?

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Omaha, Nebraska—By now, I've had a little bit of time to chew over the Wounded Knee massacre monument, and it's still kind of gnawing at me. So I'll just give you a short sketch, to give you a better sense of what the place is like:

Try to imagine a national cemetery, immaculate and regimented, and then visualize the exact opposite of it, and you'll maybe get a decent mental image. When you approach the monument, grasshoppers the color of honey dijon scatter at your feet as if tossed from a see-saw, and the wind cuts through the prairie from the south like entrance music. Cook Islanders had 32 words for wind; I can't speak for the Oglala, but here on the northern plains, in the poorest patch of the richest nation on the face of the Earth, amid acres of wavy wheatgrass and milkwort and sunflowers, and badlands like so many miles of drip-castles in a desert, the wind is the life that rushes through the land when all else has gone to rest.

The cemetery—which includes the monument to the victims of the Wounded Knee massacred by US troops in 1890, along with the graves of Oglala spanning a century—sits on an elevated plot of ground with views of the valley below, provided you're standing outside the chain-link fence that surrounds the central area.

The physical monument itself, which is only a small part of the Wounded Knee cemetery, is more like a collection basket. Well-wishers have left pennies, nickels, dimes, bundles of dried prairie grasses, small rocks, suggested reading materials, feathers, incense, bottles of Dasani, a Bhutan prayer flag, and one very lonely butterscotch sucker. To complete this scene, add a few brigades of ants, because people keep on leaving food, and nothing must go to waste.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 31, 2010

Tue Aug. 31, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

 

Soldiers assigned to the Provincial Reconstruction Team security forces team, conduct a presence patrol though Mangow village in eastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, on Aug 26. Photo via the US Army by US Air Force Staff Sergeant Steven R. Doty.

What Happens When Summer is Over?

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 10:18 PM PDT

Gallup got a lot of attention today for a news release reporting that the Republican lead over Democrats in the generic congressional poll had blown out from three points last week to ten points this week. It's only one poll, but it was a pretty dramatic result.

So I went over to Pollster.com to see what their latest poll aggregation showed. It's on the right, with the period from June through August highlighted in pink for both 2009 and 2010. It's not instantly obvious to the eye, but it turns out that pretty much the same thing happened both last year and this. During the three months of summer in 2009, Republicans went from -2 to +1, a change of three points. This year they went from +1 to +5, a change of four points.

So what does the recent change mean? I don't know, but if I had to guess I'd say it shows that conservative hysteria during a slow news season is a pretty effective attention getter, at least in the short term. Last year it was death panels and frenzied town hall meetings. This year it's the Ground Zero mosque and a Glenn Beck rally on the Mall.

So will they lose some of this lead as summer winds down and there's a little more real news to report, as they did last year? Beats me. But I wouldn't be surprised. This is shaping up to be a bad year for Democrats, but once August is over, everyone goes back to work, and the real campaigning begins, things might tighten back up a bit.

How Immigration Boosts Your Pay

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 6:45 PM PDT

Felix Salmon points to a new research note from the San Francisco Fed about the effects of immigration on U.S. employment and productivity. The bottom line results are interesting: the author says that immigration has no effect on employment ("the economy absorbs immigrants by expanding job opportunities rather than by displacing workers born in the United States"); it has a strong upward effect on average income ("total immigration to the United States from 1990 to 2007 was associated with [...] an increase of about $5,100 in the yearly income of the average U.S. worker"); and immigration improves an economy's total factor productivity dramatically.

Like I said: pretty interesting. But what I thought was even more interesting was the explanation that followed. Why does immigration increase average income? How does it increase productivity and efficiency? Here's the scoop:

The analysis begins with the well-documented phenomenon that U.S.-born workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations....Because those born in the United States have relatively better English language skills, they tend to specialize in communication tasks. Immigrants tend to specialize in other tasks, such as manual labor. Just as in the standard concept of comparative advantage, this results in specialization and improved production efficiency.

If these patterns are driving the differences across states, then in states where immigration has been heavy, U.S.-born workers with less education should have shifted toward more communication-intensive jobs. Figure 3 shows exactly this....In states with a heavy concentration of less-educated immigrants, U.S.-born workers have migrated toward more communication-intensive occupations. Those jobs pay higher wages than manual jobs, so such a mechanism has stimulated the productivity of workers born in the United States and generated new employment opportunities.

What's really striking about this is that the very mechanism that provides the productivity boost — the fact that immigrants don't speak English well and therefore push native workers out of manual labor and into higher-paying jobs — is precisely the thing that most provokes the immigrant skeptics. They all want immigrants to assimilate faster and speak English better, but if they did then they'd just start competing for the higher paying jobs that natives now monopolize.

The usual caveats apply here. This is only one study. (Well, two actually, but still.) And in order to generate useful results the authors have to control for a whole menagerie of variables that can muck things up. There's always a chance that some important variable got missed or that another one got controlled for incorrectly. So don't take this as the last word. It does, however, join a growing literature that suggests immigration has no negative effect on wages and might actually have a positive effect. Interesting stuff.