2011 - %3, May

Quotes of the Day: Sarah Palin Edition

| Mon May. 23, 2011 12:06 PM PDT

From a review of Blind Allegiance, a confessional memoir by former Sarah Palin aide Frank Bailey:

Bailey also helped smear a neighbor who complained about excessive tourist traffic around the governor’s mansion. After hearing of the gripe, Palin sent her daughter Piper out to sell lemonade and then derided her neighbor for protesting children at play. Soon, the neighbor was portrayed on conservative blogs as “sick,” “unhinged” and “drug-addicted.” “By the time we finished with our politics of destruction, he surely regretted ever mentioning the governor’s name,” Bailey writes. “He learned firsthand why so few people were willing to speak out against Sarah Palin.”

And this from Gabe Sherman's New York piece on Fox News chief Roger Ailes:

“He thinks things are going in a bad direction,” another Republican close to Ailes told me. “Roger is worried about the future of the country. He thinks the election of Obama is a disaster. He thinks Palin is an idiot. He thinks she’s stupid. He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven’t elevated the conservative movement.”

Well, Sarah Palin is an idiot. I guess this just goes to show that even Roger Ailes has to be right occasionally.

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Did the DEA Knowingly Keep a Terrorist On Its Payroll?

| Mon May. 23, 2011 12:00 PM PDT

Today, a court in Chicago will hear the opening arguments in the trial of Tahawwu Rana, a Pakistani-Canadian doctor charged with providing material support to the terrorists who planned and executed the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The attacks resulted in the deaths of 166 people, including six Americans. The prosecution's star witness: Pakistani-American businessman and former DEA informant David Headley, Rana's childhood friend and alleged accomplice in the attacks. The prosecution has accused Rana of allowing Headley to use his immigration consulting firm as a cover overseas.

Both men were arrested in October of 2009 in connection with the Mumbai attack. Last year, Headley pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to bomb targets in Mumbai, providing material support to the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and aiding and abetting the murder of US citizens in the Mumbai attacks. In his confession, he painted a blistering picture of the role of Pakistani's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), in helping Lashkar-e-Taiba carry out the attacks. Rana's defense team is expected to argue that the conniving, charismatic Headley misled their client about the true, murderous intent of the Mumbai operation.

ProPublica's Sebastian Rotella reports that both sides will undoubtedly explore the numerous alleged ties between the ISI and Lashkar—which should make Pakistani security officials very nervous. Last month, federal prosecutors indicted an ISI officer known only as Major Iqbal for the murders of the six Americans in Mumbai (whose deaths form the basis for the US trial). But there's another security bureaucracy that could get some unwanted attention during the Rana trial, one that's much closer to home: the DEA. From Rotella:

After a 1997 arrest for heroin smuggling, Headley became a prized DEA informant who targeted Pakistani traffickers. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the DEA directed him to collect intelligence on terrorists as well as drugs. In December 2001, the U.S. government ended his probation three years early and rushed him to Pakistan, where he began training in Lashkar terror camps weeks later, according to court documents, officials and his associates.

Some federal officials say he remained an informant at least three more years, but the DEA disagrees.

"David Headley was sent to Pakistan for approximately three weeks to further a drug investigation in 1998," said a DEA official familiar with his work as an informant. The DEA official declined to comment on Headley's mission in late 2001 but said: "He was deactivated in early 2002."

That assertion only deepens the contradictions and mysteries about Headley's missions overseas. Between 2001 and 2008, federal authorities were warned six times by his wives and associates that he was involved in terrorism. None of the resulting inquiries yielded anything. The FBI and CIA say he never worked for them.

Headley's long, duplicitous history of playing one side against the other should have raised serious flags for his handlers at the DEA. Ugly revelations about the DEA's involvement with Headley could raise some damaging questions about the feds' use of informants.

Waxman Targets the Koch Brothers

| Mon May. 23, 2011 11:32 AM PDT

What do the infamous Koch brothers have to do with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which, if approved, would run 1,661 miles from Alberta, Canada to Texas, carrying 900,000 barrels of oil from Canada's tar sands to US refineries? TransCanada has requested permission to build the pipeline, but Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) want more information about how project might also benefit the right-wing financiers and their energy conglomerate, Koch Industries. The pair sent a letter ot Republican leadership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee asking them to formally request more information. This comes in response to an article from SolveClimate that indicated that the Kochs could profit big time if the pipeline is approved.

The lawmakers wrote:

Publicly available information indicates that the company is involved in several aspects of Canadian tar sands development. Koch’s Pine Bend Refinery in Minnesota currently processes roughly 25% of the tar sands fuel imports to the United States. Koch owns Flint Hills Resources, LLP, in Calgary, Canada, which is “among Canada’s largest crude oil purchasers, shippers and exporters.” Flint Hills Resources also operates a crude oil terminal in Hardisty, Alberta, where the Keystone XL pipeline will begin. According to the Government of Alberta, Koch Industries has both proposed and producing tar sands projects in the province. The Oil Sands Developers Group also indicates that Koch is a tar sands project developer. Koch’s Corpus Christi refinery is positioned near the end of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and would be a potential buyer for the tar sands crude shipped through the pipeline.

When Democratic staff for the Energy and Commerce Committee recently inquired about Koch Industries' connections to the proposed pipeline, however, the company's representatives told them the firm has "no financial interest" in the project. Waxman and Rush want the committee's Republican leadership to formally ask the company to provide any and all documents relating to the pipeline.

This comes as House Republicans attempt to advance a bill that would expedite the review process for the pipeline, forcing President Obama to make a decision by November 1, 2011. (The text of the bill makes it pretty clear that its authors want that answer to be a "yes.") The House energy and commerce committee is holding a hearing on the legislation today, where TransCanada's president, Alex Pourbaix, will testify.

The State Department recently granted more time for evaluation of the pipeline, as environmental groups, farmers and lawmakers from the region have expressed concerns about its potential environmental impacts. Those fears are justified; TransCanada's current pipeline has been plagued by leaks.

Republicans on the committee and Koch Industries have counter-attacked, with one Republican staffer calling Waxman's request a "transparently political stunt" in a comment to The Hill. Of course, it's no secret that drawing a Kochtopus connection is an easy way to draw attention to a subject. But it shouldn't distract from the many substantial concerns about the pipeline proposal with or without their involvement.

Deep Sixing the Home Mortgage Deduction

| Mon May. 23, 2011 11:02 AM PDT

Seth Hanlon says that the home mortgage deduction is more valuable for high earners than for low earners. Here's the data:

This seems to suggest that eliminating the mortgage interest deduction would raise effective marginal rates more on rich people than on middle earners, so it would be a progressive thing to do. But I have a couple of questions about this:

  • Above the $40,000 line, the mortgage interest deduction seems to amount to about 1% of income for everyone. But a tax increase of one percentage point is a bigger deal for a median earner than it is for a high earner. So it's not clear just how progressive it would be to get rid of this deduction.
  • This data is solely for owner-occupied housing. But renters benefit too, since landlords can deduct mortgage interest just like homeowners. This reduces their average costs and therefore (on average) reduces rent levels. You need to account for this to see how much benefit there is for workers who earn less than $40,000.

I'm probably in favor of phasing out the mortgage interest deduction regardless since I think we're well past the time when the federal government has any legitimate interest in spurring homeownership. Still, I'm not sure it would be all that progressive a move.

The GOP Field Starts to Gel

| Mon May. 23, 2011 9:48 AM PDT

With Mitch Daniels out of the GOP presidential race, we've pretty much settled on a field, haven't we? Discounting the vanity candidates, we have:

  • Newt Gingrich
  • Tim Pawlenty
  • Mitt Romney
  • Jon Huntsman

I suppose we're also waiting for firm decisions from Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, but assuming they decline to run it's hard to see anyone other than Romney or Pawlenty winning. This is just a remarkably thin field.

You and Your Beliefs

| Mon May. 23, 2011 8:57 AM PDT

Adam Ozimek on our unwillingness to truly reconsider beliefs that are integral to our self identity:

Think about beliefs that you hold and imagine yourself changing your mind. Literally imagine waking up tomorrow with a changed mind and imagine how you would or wouldn’t discuss changing your mind with people you know. Feelings will be strong for beliefs that are important to our identities or that we value for some signaling purpose, like signaling affiliation with some group. Can you actually imagine yourself with these changed beliefs, or is it unthinkable?

....Conservatives, could you imagine becoming someone believes that higher taxes and unemployment insurance don’t hurt economic growth or employment? Liberals can you imagine becoming someone who believes that that minimum wages decrease employment and fiscal stimulus doesn’t work? If the answer is no, you should think about whether it’s because holding such a belief would conflict with your identity or affiliations.

Maybe these are just bad examples, but neither one of them would cause me much angst if I had to change my mind about them. The minimum wage debate has always been balanced on a knife point, with basic theory suggesting that an increase will hurt employment but more detailed considerations suggesting there are small countervailing effects. It's hard to imagine the evidence pointing to a large effect in either direction, but if it did, I wouldn't have a lot of trouble endorsing some alternate way of helping low-income workers.1 Likewise, I didn't endorse the 2009 stimulus because I wanted to spend all that money, I endorsed it because I thought it was the best short-term way to boost an economy in big trouble. If there were indisputably a better way, I'd probably endorse that instead. (Though, as with all things, there are issues of fairness and equity that come into play too, not just pure economic considerations.)

I suppose a better example might be beliefs about taxes in general. There's an obvious tension between economic efficiency, which suggests that consumption taxes are best, and liberal attitudes toward social justice, which motivate a desire for a fair amount of progressivity. The more evidence there is that high income taxes on the rich are bad for economic growth, the bigger the tension. Luckily for me, that evidence is still fairly slim. But what if it became stronger? It's always possible to dream up progressive consumption taxes, but there are limits to what you can do with those. So there's at least the possibility of a fair amount of cognitive dissonance here.

So.....I dunno. I guess a lot of this depends not just on how liberal or conservative you are, but on how inherently pragmatic you tend to be. I have pretty concrete feelings about social justice, but I also have pretty concrete feelings about wanting policies that work well and produce minimal friction. So far this hasn't driven me to drink, but I guess there's no telling about tomorrow, is there?

1Just generally, I've always been a fan of lots of little initiatives to help the poor rather than a few big ones. This is one of the reasons why. If you put all your eggs in one basket, and that basket turns out to be problematic, you're screwed. If you have lots of little baskets, it's not too wrenching to get rid of one and simply increase the others a little bit.

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Making Our Own Reality

| Mon May. 23, 2011 8:21 AM PDT

Today the LA Times ran four letters about President Obama's Middle East speech. Here's how three of them started:

Howard Karlitz: In his speech explicitly stating America's friendship with Israel and our commitment to its security, President Obama urged the Israelis to return to their 1967 borders as a means of securing peace....

Kenneth L. Zimmerman: Setting the borders for a Palestinian state the way they were before the 1967 war is the only reasonable solution....

Mike Sacks: Given the logic of Obama's proposal that Israel return to the pre-1967 borders, the following should also occur....

Obama, of course, didn't propose that Israel return to its 1967 borders. I would like to repeat that for posterity while there's still a chance that someone might believe me:

In his speech on Thursday, President Obama didn't propose that Israel return to its 1967 borders.

How is it that this has seemingly become conventional wisdom in just a few short days? Obama's formulation, after all was crystal clear and only 19 words long: "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating on those exact terms for decades.

I don't really know what's happened here. Is it the power of Fox News? The power of AIPAC? Just the age-old power of people to hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe? I dunno. But it's really pretty stunning to see this kind of historical revisionism become so widespread so fast.

The State of Play in Israel

| Mon May. 23, 2011 7:53 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias on the aftermath of Bibi Netanyahu's hamhanded public lecturing of the current president of the United States last week, which largely produced bipartisan attacks on the president:

Despite Obama’s lack of desire to shift US policy, he’s subject to opportunistic political attacks from members of the opposition party, attacks which are echoed rather than rebutted by members of his own political coalition. Meanwhile, despite an overhyped trend toward younger Jewish American adopting more sympathetic views toward Palestinians, the fact of the matter is that the Palestinian cause is deeply and increasingly unpopular in the United States.

....It turns out that it’s not true that Israel needs to be willing to make tactical concessions to the Palestinians or even be polite to the White House in order to retain American support. Israel has a basically free hand to behave as it wishes, taking the pieces of the West Bank it wants....If liberal American Jews think this strategy is morally wrong (I do!) or that it’s a strategic mistake for the United States to go along with it (me too!), that it involves denying sufficient weight to the objective humanity of Palestinians, then we ought to say that. Simply assuming that it can’t work is, I think, a slightly naive read of the situation.

This is roughly correct. I happen to think Netanyahu's approach is probably disastrous for Israel in the long term, but that's certainly debatable. For better or worse, Netanyahu and his allies have very clearly decided that they can live without peace pretty much forever, occupying the land they currently occupy and keeping a stifling military presence in the rest of the West Bank. And they've also decided that their support in the United States is strong enough that they don't even have to be civil to a sitting U.S. president, let alone make actual concessions to him.

And maybe they're right. I don't see how this state of affairs can last forever, but it can probably last longer than I think. The Israeli and American right has correctly concluded that no one can stop them, after all.

Focus on the Family Head: "We've Probably Lost" on Gay Marriage

| Mon May. 23, 2011 7:08 AM PDT

Last week, a Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans support gay marriage. It was the third such survey this spring, and if you add in the number of Americans who support civil unions, public support for same-sex relationships has become the dominant position. Anti-gay marriage activists, though, aren't going down quietly; in Minnesota, a bill to put an anti-gay marriage referendum on the 2012 ballot recently passed the House, and conservatives in Iowa (with an assist from Newt Gingrich) successfully ousted three state supreme court judges who had ruled the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional. But this is a far cry from the days of, oh, 2004, when a flurry of anti-gay marriage propositions at the state level helped propel President George W. Bush to a second term.

So how far has the pendulum swung? Even Jim Daly, president of the right-wing group Focus on the Family, seems to be waving the white flag. Here's what he told the evangelical World magazine in its June issue:

We're winning the younger generation on abortion, at least in theory. What about same-sex marriage? We're losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage. I don't know if that's going to change with a little more age—demographers would say probably not. We've probably lost that. I don't want to be extremist here, but I think we need to start calculating where we are in the culture.

Daly has taken a more conciliatory approach to to traditional hot-button issues than his predecessor at Focus, James Dobson, so perhaps it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to see him speak so candidly. (For more on the shift to a kinder, gentler, skinny jeans-ier Focus on the Family, check out Stephanie Mencimer's piece on the group's hipster makeover.) But it can't help the anti-gay religious right to have such a prominent social conservative say that the crusade against gay marriage has essentially been lost and that it's time to accept that reality and move on.

This isn't a permanent cease-fire; Daly merely thinks that Christians need to get their own marriages in order before lecturing from the moral high ground: "What if the Christian divorce rate goes from 40 percent to 10 percent or 5 percent, and the world's goes from 50 percent to 80 percent? Now we're back to the early centuries. They're looking at us and thinking, 'We want more of what they've got.'" As he puts it, "we should start with how to get dads reconnected to the family and committed to their marriages."

Come to think of it, isn't that what an organization called "Focus on the Family" should have been doing all along?

Yelle's Safari Disco Universe

| Mon May. 23, 2011 3:36 AM PDT
Yelle live in Brussels, Belgium

While listening to Yelle, you may sense a loose combination of urges to laugh, cry, and slap an ex-lover. The confused feelings can be frustrating (disregarding the fact that all of the songs are in French), since whatever your state of mind, you will not be able shake off the urge to dance. The French synth-pop trio—singer Julie Budet and producers GrandMarnier (Jean-François Perrier) and Tepr (Tanguy Destable)—delivers stretchy keyboard sounds punctuated by a steady booming beat and the occasional crack of a whip. Budet's youthful, silky voice ties it all into a neat package that is at once playful, rebellious, flirtatious, and meloncholic.

After the success of Yelle's first album, Pop Up, in 2007, the group is back with Safari Disco Club, reminding us that it can pack a mean punch despite being in a genre that is often taken as seriously as bubblegum and pigtails. Some American fans have already likened the 28-year-old Budet to Madonna, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga—minus their overwrought drama. 

Onstage at San Francisco's Regency Ballroom this past Thursday night, Yelle was a refreshing change. A petite-and-well-sculpted Budet, clad in a skintight red leopard-print body suit, danced around happily, unbound by choreography, in that girls-just-want-to-have-fun-gone-femme-fatale manner. Every now and then she donned a matching animal-print hood to create an air of mystery, and give a nod to her '80s hip-hop/Fresh Prince of Bel-Air phase. At the end of the show, she excitedly invited fans to meet the band outside.

Off stage, Budet was as comfortable and familiar as an old friend or a worn-in pair of jeans. Below, she takes a break from her pre-show sound check to talk about living the "simple life," baking, and Yelle's new video.