2011 - %3, November

Wonks Agree: Supreme Court Will Uphold Obamacare

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 12:29 PM PST

A couple of political science wonks pull out some charts today to try to predict what the Supreme Court will do about Obamacare:

As always, predictions are hard, especially about the future (see Berra v. Bohr) and especially when it isn’t clear which precedents apply or which legal doctrines are likely to dominate. Thus, any specific prediction must go beyond the model.

That said, here is ours: 6-3 or 7-2 to uphold the law.

Respect for precedent pushes Kennedy to support the law and Roberts comes along for the ride in order to keep the opinion out of Kennedy’s hands (and possibly writing an opinion that cabins the Commerce Clause more than it is now). Alito probably goes with Roberts, but seems more up for grabs. If we are wrong, expect the justices to either downplay precedent and emphasize other legal values (such as federalism) or play up the few precedents that protect state rights.

Policy motivations won’t be irrelevant, but score this one for law.

Hey, they stole that from me! But they have actual arguments to back themselves up. And a book. Check it out.

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Another Of Qaddafi's Sons Captured

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 12:11 PM PST

On Sunday, Libya's Transitional National Council announced that its fighters had captured Saif al-Islam, a son of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi. Here's a bit from the New York Times' report:

But while transitional government leaders in the capital, Tripoli, promised that Mr. Qaddafi would be closely guarded and turned over to the International Criminal Court to be tried on war crimes charges, leaders in Zintan insisted that they would not hand him over until a formal national government was formed — a process that is in the works but at least a day or two away.

Such insistence on factional power is at the heart of international concerns about Libya’s future. And after Colonel Qaddafi’s capture and killing at the hands of militiamen a month ago, his son's case will be an important test of Libya's commitment to the rule of law.

Videos and images posted on the internet after Moammar Qaddafi's capture showed apparent torture followed by what seemed to be a summary execution. One of the dictator's sons, Mutassim al-Qaddafi, died under similarly sketchy circumstances, and human rights groups have raised the possibility that Qaddafi supporters in the town if Sirte may have been summarily killed as well. Now Human Rights Watch is calling for al-Islam to be handed over to the International Criminal Court for trial—perhaps so that he might avoid the fate of his father and brother.

But according to Reuters reporters, one of whom traveled with TNC forces as they transported al-Islam, Saif al-Islam's capture was quite different from his father's:

Speaking to journalists on Sunday, Atari said that, in the darkness, "Saif jumped out and tried to take cover behind the car." He then tried to conceal himself under a bundle of clothes, covering it with sand. "But when we told him to surrender he did," Atari said.

"The operation was simple and without any resistance or casualties. We treated Saif al-Islam properly. No one laid a finger on him because we are men of honor."

It's probably a hopeful sign that this time around, forces aligned with the TNC were able to restrain themselves from sexually assaulting and executing their prisoner.

Quote of the Day: Profiting From the Misery of Millions

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 11:47 AM PST

Like all right-thinking people, Felix Salmon is aghast at the austerity measures being implemented in Europe. After all, austerity won't help during a liquidity crisis, which means that in addition to hurting ordinary citizens, "it will harm the fat-cat bankers, too." But then he goes a bit beyond even right-thinking conventional wisdom:

But here’s the cunning bit: the bankers don’t really have their banks’ best interests at heart. They just want to keep on getting their coupon payments until this year’s bonuses are paid. And then, once those bonus checks are cashed, they’ll start trying to get next year’s bonus payment, too.

The bankers and technocrats know full well that the longer they manage to kick the can down the road, the worse it’ll be for everybody in the long run. But in the short run, they get very wealthy. Even as crucial government services are cut to the bone, and the risk of major social unrest increases greatly.

Are they really that cynical? Maybe so. Are they consciously that cynical? I'd guess probably not. Man is a rationalizing animal, after all. As Upton Sinclair famously said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." And bankers have mighty big salaries.

Obama's Overseas Triumph

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 10:51 AM PST

Dan Drezner recommends Walter Russell Mead's nickel summary of President Obama's recent whirlwind swing through Asia. I confess that the reaction to rotating a couple hundred troops through Darwin struck me as a little overblown, but decoding the sub rosa minutiae of diplomatic intrigue is tricky at the best of times, so I figured I was probably missing something. Anyway, Mead says that was the least of things:

The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.

Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast....[I]t was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team.

OK, then. Congratulations, Team Obama! Dan explains the background: "China's behavior in 2009 and 2010 was a giant honking invitation for the rest of the Pacific Rim to cozy up to the United States. And that's what should worry Beijing. It's not that the United States is interested in maintaining its presence in East Asia — that interest has not wavered. What has changed is the eagerness with which the countries in the region, ranging from Australia to Myanmar, have reciprocated."

Anyway, this is interesting. I haven't seen Obama get much credit for this trip, possibly because the minutiae of diplomatic intrigue is no more obvious to most reporters than it is to me. And I certainly wouldn't have expected it from Walter Russell Mead. But apparently it was quite the triumph.

And now, back to the grubby work of dealing with the Republican Party. They make the nominal communists of the People's Republic look like pushovers.

Herman Cain: Muslim Doctors Scare Me

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 10:14 AM PST
GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain.

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain has a Muslim problem. Cain has already publicly suggested that Muslims are not guaranteed First Amendment rights and that he would not hire any observant Muslims in his hypothetical administration. His strategy, as with most of his other problems, has been to deny having said any of the things he has said, and then, when pressed, to insist that he's answered the question already, end of story, period. But Cain appears to have shot himself in the foot once again. Chris Moody attended Cain's event at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, a Biblical amusement park, and reports that Cain started his speech off with a curious anecdote:

He did have a slight worry at one point during the chemotherapy process when he discovered that one of the surgeon's name was "Dr. Abdallah."

"I said to his physician assistant, I said, 'That sounds foreign--not that I had anything against foreign doctors--but it sounded too foreign," Cain tells the audience. "She said, 'He's from Lebanon.' Oh, Lebanon! My mind immediately started thinking, wait a minute, maybe his religious persuasion is different than mine! She could see the look on my face and she said, 'Don't worry, Mr. Cain, he's a Christian from Lebanon.'"

"Hallelujah!" Cain says. "Thank God!"

This isn't the first time Cain has discussed his fears of Dr. Abdallah. It was a stripped-down version of this same anecdote, told during an interview with CBN's David Brody, that first sparked interest in Cain's anti-Muslim views in February. That Cain's still beating the drum seven months later tells you a good deal about the seriousness and discipline of his campaign; it also says a lot about Herman Cain. (My colleague Adam Serwer, meanwhile, can fill you in on why, if you're looking for villiains in the Lebanese Civil War, there's plenty of blame to go around.)

The Music Video The Church of Scientology Doesn't Want You To See

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 9:35 AM PST
After much searching, this turned out to be really the only suitable metaphor for any of this.

Nothing is off limits in rap music these days. The violence of American gangsta rap? American mainstream. Pervasive misogyny? Sure, why not? Cheerleading for ironfisted Islamist rule in Tunisia? Ain't no thing.

But a rap song praising the transcendent, pharma-bashing power of Scientology?

That may be a new one.

Behold: the music video that officially makes all concept of satire irrelevant

This song—which sounds like a cross between "Empire State of Mind" and Vanilla Ice's Wisdom, Tenacity and Focus, with a melodic dash of the seminal "Smell Yo Dick—stands as the single most gangsta thing the Church of Scientology has ever accomplished (not counting their, you know, deep infiltration of the US federal government in the 1970s aimed at eliminating reports critical of the Church). The music video, originally circulated exclusively within church membership, was uncovered by Tony Ortega of the Village Voice, who writes:

We believe that the track is by "Chill EB," a hip hop artist who credits Scientology with extending his career, such as it is. The name of the song is "Dauntless, Defiant, and Resolute," the title track of Chill's latest CD. (Chill himself doesn't actually appear in the video.) The IAS [an acronym repeated five times in the song] is the International Association of Scientologists, a happenin' organization for which Scientologists are constantly hit up for expensive memberships.

Baffling lyrical gems include (click here for the complete lyrics):

Giving solutions to the world and the whole human race/We ain't never gonna back down, leave town, play the clown/Psychiatry and SPs you know we take 'em down!

Brings the calm and the peace/Helping all reduce crime - even the police/Psychotropic drugs - we'll make a thing of the past/Expose the fraud of the psychs and watch them dwindle real fast.

And my personal favorite:

Yo, it's truly fantastic/Cuz there ain't no limit to what we can do/So I wanna see you up your status/Yeah, you and you and you and you too!

By all means, [insert cheap Tom Cruise joke here].

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The Problem With Low Interest Rates

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 9:18 AM PST

Interest rates in the United States are really, really low. This suggests two things. First, it's a great time for Uncle Sam to borrow money for free and spend it on things like infrastructure repair. Second, no matter what the budget jihadists says, the financial markets are apparently not very worried about the federal deficit. If they were, they'd be driving interest rates up.

Tyler Cowen, though, thinks we shouldn't be quite so sure of ourselves:

The “pretense of knowledge” I have seen in these discussions is staggering. Roubini forecast the Italian crisis in 2006 (bravo to him), but overall how many people on the left were so wise to be calling for such Italian spending cuts in 2005, when the country had relatively low bond yields?....The correct response to the Italian situation is: “We didn’t think it could get so bad so quickly. We will take this as a sobering lesson more generally.”

That is not the response I have been seeing. There is too much at stake for us to take comfort in our own supposed abilities to foresee the future.

I don't think the Italian situation is as clear cut as Tyler makes it out to be. Italy's budget deficit wasn't all that outrageous before 2005, and after that the EU put a lot of pressure on them to get it down. So it was hardly something that was ignored. Still, his overall point is worthwhile: Italy's bigger problem was that although its absolute debt level was high, its debt-to-GDP ratio was declining thanks to low eurozone interest rates. That took some of the pressure off, but it turned out to be a fool's paradise. Low interest rates don't necessarily stay low forever.

This is one reason not to take too much solace in low U.S. interest rates right now: just as markets can be wrong during asset bubbles, markets can be wrong on sovereign borrowing rates too. And as we all know, if and when they finally decide they've been wrong, they can change course in a blink.

There's a second reason too: our current borrowing rates are low not so much because markets think we're in terrific shape, but because they think we're the least worst option available right now. Unlike developing countries with roaring economies, U.S. bonds are stable and have modest inflation risk. And unlike eurozone bonds, they have no risk of default. So they're the only game in town.

But they might not be forever. I think the evidence strongly favors substantial fiscal stimulus right now, but if there's an argument for caution I think this is the best one. Markets can turn in a flash, and you don't always have a lot of warning when it happens. As always, then, our best bet would be higher deficits now combined with a credible plan to cut deficits in the long term. Unfortunately, there's simply no way to make the deficit math work without a substantial contribution from higher taxes. And the Republican Party flatly refuses to recognize that. It probably won't happen soon, but eventually the markets are going to react fairly badly to this state of affairs.

An Ounce of Tomato Paste a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 8:45 AM PST

Sarah Kliff, obviously auditioning for killjoy of the day, says that Congress has not, in fact, declared pizza a vegetable. What they did was allow tomato paste to retain its privileged place in school lunches: for nutritional purposes, an eighth of a cup of tomato paste counts the same as half a cup of fruits and vegetables. The reason for this is obvious: it makes it easier for pizza to find a spot on school lunch menus. But suspect motivations aside, Sarah say the decision wasn't really all that outrageous on the merits:

If you stack one-eighth of a cup of tomato paste up against a half-cup of some pretty common fruits and vegetables, the paste actually doesn’t do so badly....All told, the nutrition facts look really similar. Tomato paste does do a lot worse on sodium, but it also does much better in terms of calcium and potassium content. It also slightly edges out apples on dietary fiber, with a lower amount of sugar.

Is Sarah merely a mouthpiece for Big Paste? A full-scale investigation is probably needed on that score. But her evidence is below. Read it and weep, pizza haters.

Pamela Geller: Beware "Stealth Halal" Turkeys This Thanksgiving

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 8:44 AM PST
Muslim Brotherhood Turkeys Are Taking Advantage Of The Arab Spring.

Anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, one of the driving forces behind the Ground Zero mosque controversy, has set her sights on a new manifestation of the stealth jihad: Your Thanksgiving turkey. Geller is calling for a boycott of Butterball, accusing the compainy of selling "stealh halal" turkeys prepared in accordance with Muslim dietary laws:

Across this great country, on Thanksgiving tables nationwide, infidel Americans are unwittingly going to be serving halal turkeys to their families this Thursday. Turkeys that are halal certified -- who wants that, especially on a day on which we are giving thanks to G-d for our freedom? I wouldn't knowingly buy a halal turkey -- would you? Halal turkey, slaughtered according to the rules of Islamic law, is just the opposite of what Thanksgiving represents: freedom and inclusiveness, neither of which are allowed for under that same Islamic law.

Just in case you're wondering, Jewish and Muslim dietary laws regarding meat are very similar. Similar enough, in fact, that a proposed ban on the ritual killing of animals in the Netherlands has both the Jewish and Muslim religious communities up in arms.

Now, assuming Geller's right about Butterball turkeys being halal, you might think that in a capitalist economy, halal turkeys are a sign of meat sellers responding to market demand for food prepared a certain way. You might even be tempted to observe that Muslim Americans marking a secular, American holiday celebrating pluralism and freedom from religious persecution might be a sign of the extent to which American Muslims have assimilated into American culture. What you didn't know was that when markets respond to the demands of Muslim consumers, freedom dies. 

Deconstructing the Right-Wing Alternate Reality

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 7:22 AM PST

Conservative apostate David Frum describes the parallel universe in which he thinks his fellow conservatives live these days:

When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.

....The thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

Actually, I can understand the first item. America may be just about the most Christian advanced nation on earth, but there's no question that Christians have suffered some setbacks. There are more nonbelievers today than any time in recent memory. Prayer in public school has long since been banned. Religious symbolism has mostly been removed from public functions. Liberals make fun of evangelical megachurches. So yeah: a feeling of besiegement is at least understandable.

And I understand the third item too. Hell, just about every country believes the same thing, and ruling elites for the past two centuries have all found it necessary to pretend that they're jes folks. So there's nothing mysterious about this either.

But the second item is a head scratcher. Whatever else you think of him, Obama is pretty obviously smart, savvy, and eloquent. What's more, when they're not yakking about what a callow bungler he is, conservatives spend their time insisting that he's led a shadowy socialist revolution that's practically brought America to its knees. So which is it? Is he a phenomenally successful fifth columnist or an incompetent cretin? Can he really be both?

In any case, the success of modern Republicanism isn't all that hard to understand anyway. Rich people like it for obvious reasons. Social conservatives like it for obvious reasons. And the white working class — well, they might not actually like it all that much, but they mostly dislike liberals even more. And this is no surprise. After all, we spend an awful lot of time trying to make them feel guilty. Your hunting trips? It's a slaughter of innocent animals. Your 15 mpg pickup truck? It's wrecking the planet. Your sexist jokes? It's workplace harassment. Your air conditioner? Keep it above 80, pal. That lazy family in the Section 8 housing down the street? Show a little compassion for the less fortunate, will you?

There's good reason for all this stuff, but it's also understandably irritating. Is it really any wonder that plenty of people are turned off by it? And if there's a large bloc of irritated registered voters, is it surprising that some political party somewhere is going to take advantage of this irritation by assuring them that heartland values are the real America, racism is a liberal scam, global warming is a myth, and social welfare programs do more harm than good?

It's really not, is it?