Kevin Drum

Naming Names

| Fri May. 1, 2009 9:01 AM PDT

Ezra Klein says Obama called the bluff of the holdouts who forced Chrysler into Chapter 11: "Not only did the administration let Chrysler fall to the bankruptcy courts, but Obama called the investors out by name."

Really?  That's great news.  I want names!  Sadly, it turns out Obama didn't call out anyone by name at all, saying only that "a group of investment firms and hedge funds decided to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout."

Boo.  Hiss.  I want names.  It's pitchfork time.

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Krauthammer on Torture

| Fri May. 1, 2009 8:24 AM PDT

Charles Krauthammer writes today that there are only two circumstances that justify torture.  The first is the ticking time bomb.  Of course.  But I'll let that one slide for now.  Here's the other one:

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the "torture memos" noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist "chatter" had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

What an astonishing coincidence!  That's exactly the situation the Bush administration says it was in.  If it weren't for his legendary dedication to intellectual integrity, you'd almost think Krauthammer had simply taken a post hoc look at what his own team did and had then made up a justification to fit.  But he wouldn't do that, would he?

Of course, any rule worth the paper it's written on has to apply to more than just our side, so presumably this means Krauthammer thinks it's generically acceptable to torture anyone of sufficient rank and value.  If the Germans had captured a colonel with probable knowledge of Patton's battle plan, torture would have been OK.  If the Taliban caught a deputy consul who knew when the next attack on Kandahar was scheduled, torture would be OK.  If al-Qaeda catches a Air Force pilot who might tell them the secret of detecting and shooting down drones, torture will be OK.

Krauthammer's exception isn't an exception.  It can justify practically anything, either from us or from anyone else.  It's essentially the end of the civilized consensus against torture.  Unfortunately, I imagine that's the point.

Out of Iraq

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 10:47 PM PDT

A few days ago the New York Times reported that we might be trying to fudge the June 30 deadline for withdrawing combat troops from Iraqi cities.  Our main military concern was the "troubled northern city of Mosul, according to military officials."

Today, McClatchy talks to different officials and says it's not so:

The Obama administration is determined to continue withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq on schedule, despite a surge of violence in two Iraqi cities that shows no signs of abating and could increase in the weeks ahead, administration and military officials said this week.

"We are not even talking about" changing the withdrawal plan, an administration official told McClatchy. "The situation would have to get a lot worse for that to change."

....In any event, said the officials, who requested anonymity because the administration's public position is more optimistic, there's little more that the United States can do to help the Iraqis end their political, ethnic and sectarian feuds; resolve their disputes over oil revenues, political power and other issues; and build a stable, prosperous and unified nation.

(Italics mine.  Ever since news outlets "banned" the use of anonymous sources, I've been collecting the hilarious excuses their writers are forced to come up with every time they use one.  This is one of the best.)

Anyway.  This is good news.  There's still wiggle room, of course (what if the situation does get a "lot worse"?) but this is still an encouraging sign.  There are always going to be a hundred reasons why we should hold off on withdrawal either from a particular place, or for a particular reason, or for a particular period of time.  If we don't stick to our guns, we'll never get out.  It's time for us to let Iraqis run their country.

Souter Stepping Down

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 7:33 PM PDT

Looks like Obama gets to put one more thing on his plate:

NPR has learned that Supreme Court Justice David Souter is planning to retire at the end of the court's current term.

....Souter is expected to remain on the bench until a successor has been chosen and confirmed, which may or may not be accomplished before the court reconvenes in October.

At 69, Souter is nowhere near the oldest member of the court, but he has made clear to friends for some time now that he wanted to leave Washington, a city he has never liked, and return to his native New Hampshire.

This won't change the ideological makeup of the court a lot, but it will probably move it to the left both a little more reliably and for a longer time.  Plus it'll give conservative activists another thing to go bananas over now that the tea parties have run out of steam.  That should be entertaining.

Waiting to Exhale

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 6:07 PM PDT

Here's yet another data point on marijuana legalization from the Washington Post:

Respondents were near split on another issue that until recently was deemed untouchable in many parts of the coutry — marijuana legalization. Forty-six percent of all respondents said they supported legalizing "possession of small amounts for personal use," with rates of support higher among men, among younger voters and among independents, a majority of whom supported legalization.

The Post also found that support for gay marriage and immigration reform had increased.  Here's a guess: views on social issues have been moderating all along for the past eight years, but only some of that moderation has shown up in polls.  The presidency of George Bush and the domination of public discourse by triumphalist Republican narratives has acted sort of like a dike holding back the waters, but now, with Obama in office and conservatives demoralized and in disarray, the dike has been breached and public opinion is returning to its natural tendency to soften on social issues over time.  In the short term, though, we'll see a sudden shift as public opinion catches up to its normal trend line.  It's sort of like we've been holding our breath for eight straight years and now we're finally, collectively, heaving a long-awaited sigh of relief.

On a related note, it's good to see that the Obama administration today embraced common sense and simple justice by endorsing a plan to end the indefensible 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  It's about time.

Black Swans and Swine Flus

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 4:23 PM PDT

David Rothkopf critiques the media:

Swine flu! World Health Organization at alert level 4! Markets rocked by sell-offs! Howie Mandel was right! Never shake hands! Bathe in Purell! See if you can borrow a face mask from Michael Jackson! Or hold your breath whenever you are near a ham sandwich! Armies of pigs in uniform marching on Washington! Orwell was right: the animals have turned on us, become more dangerous than us! Four legs bad, two legs good! Head for the hills!

Once again, the media is reacting to a potential threat with its usual calm, responsibly recognizing that sensational coverage of diseases can have far worse consequences than the diseases themselves. Or not.

"Moderation in all things" isn't exactly the motto of cable news, is it?  To be fair, though, figuring out the right reaction isn't easy.  Sure, swine flu 1.0 was a bust, avian flu was a bust, and SARS was a bust, so maybe SF 2.0 will be a bust too.  Then again, this might be The One, and we might never know.  After all, if all the hype manages to keep the current strain from mutating into the Andromeda Strain and destroying humanity, we'll never know, will we?  It'll just look like another bust.

(Sort of like the Y2K bug, which is one of my favorite pet peeves.  Here's a heads-up to everyone who thinks Y2K was all just a bunch of hooey: the reason nothing much happened is because everyone went bonkers and spent tens of billions of dollars rewriting their software.  It's true that in the end the world's computers didn't freeze up and die, but that's because we fixed them.  Ask my wife if you don't believe me.)

So will we ever know if SF 2.0 was The Big One?  If it kills a billion people, yes.  If it doesn't, no.  We'll just have to keep wondering.  Which, to my surprise (and to change the subject completely), turns out to be a big chunk of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about in The Black Swan.  After I was (properly) smacked down over my airy dismissal of Taleb a few days ago, I finally decided that maybe I ought to actually read his book instead of relying on the odd blog post about it, and I have to say that it's not at all what I expected.  So far, anyway.  It's a real mishmash of odd potted historical anecdotes that go nowhere, interesting insights about human nature, opinions about historical contingency that are strangely unmoored from even an acknowledgment that lots of other people have thought about this subject before, and conventional observations about things like confirmation bias and the limits of induction.  However, Taleb swears that he's a doer, not an idle idea spinner, and by the time I'm finished I'll get some genuinely concrete advice about how to deal with uncertainty and the limits of knowledge in real life.

We'll see.  I'm a little skeptical based on the first few chapters, but I suppose Taleb himself would warn me that even a long string of mediocre chapters doesn't mean there won't be a phenomenal one that will rock my world when I least expect it.  If I finish it this weekend, I'll report back.

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Chart of the Day - 4.30.2009

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 10:54 AM PDT

Ezra Klein points to an intriguing bit of opinion polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation today: 61% of Americans say that in order to fund healthcare reform they'd support higher taxes on "items that are thought to be unhealthy, such as soda, alcohol, junk food, and cigarettes":

Problematically, the poll question lumps a lot of different policies together. Paying for health care by taxing cigarettes is actually a common strategy. It's how we funded S-CHIP, for one. Taxing soda is rather further from the center of the consensus. But there's no evidence, in this poll at least, that the public instinctually recoils from the idea.

In a sense, I'm not too surprised by this.  I suspect that most people know that soda and junk food really are a scourge and would like to cut back.  So either through guilt, or maybe a sense that they need someone else to prod them into doing the right thing, they support higher taxes on this stuff.

Further down, however, there's a followup question:

This is a fascinating example of just how thin opinion polling like this is.  The real lesson here is that most people haven't given this issue even a few seconds thought, and their response to the poll question is practically meaningless.  Faced with even the slightest pushback, large majorities of both supporters and opponents flipped their views almost instantly.

So the real question isn't how people feel about taxing junk food now, it's how they're likely to feel about taxing junk food after hearing both sides screech about it for a few days or weeks or months.  This is true of most other opinion polling too.  Caveat emptor.

Gambling on Fiat

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 10:16 AM PDT

The Chrysler bankruptcy is now official:

Once Chrysler restructures, the company would receive $4.5 billion in financing to restart its operations....That is $2 billion more than Mr. Obama initially said the company would receive if it successfully reached a deal with Fiat.

Chrysler has already received $4.5 billion from the government, under a bailout plan put into effect by the Bush administration in late December....The Canadian government also is expected to provide $1 for every $3 in American support, the official said, meaning Chrysler could receive another $2.6 billion.

So that's nearly $12 billion in total assistance.  All to prop up a company that, I'll bet, won't last two years.  Compared to the vast sums of taxpayer cash we're handing over to the banking industry practically for free, I suppose this isn't really all that much, but it's still pretty hard to swallow since it seems almost vanishingly unlikely that Chrysler will survive in the end.  I mean, does anyone really think that the management genius of Fiat is going to save them?  Fiat?

 

 

Quotes of the Day - 4.30.09

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 9:21 AM PDT

#1 comes from entertaining Republican loon Michele Bachmann, who apparently doesn't know that Herbert Hoover was president in 1930:

FDR applied just the opposite formula — the Hoot-Smalley Act....That's what we saw happen under FDR. That took a recession and blew it into a full-scale depression. The American people suffered for almost 10 years under that kind of thinking.

#2 comes from Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, explaining the facts of life:

And the banks — hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.

We've noticed.  #3 comes from Megan McArdle:

If my husband sacrificed our child to save thousands of people, I might recognize, at some abstract level, that he had done the right thing.  But we wouldn't stay married.

Discuss.  Would you stay married?

The Party of No

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 8:52 AM PDT

Mark Schmitt thinks that Barack Obama's bipartisan tone has worked pretty well, defining the landscape and marginalizing a Republican Party that's gotten steadily crazier in opposition.  Matt Yglesias isn't so sure:

To take just one example, climate change. The administration and the congressional leadership have ruled out the use of the reconciliation process to pass their energy/climate agenda. Since it’s completely inconceivable that you could get 60 votes in the Senate for the sort of cap-and-trade proposal that Barack Obama outlined during the campaign, this means they’ve preemptively surrendered on an agenda that they ran and won on during the course of a two-year presidential campaign.

....So you can say that congressional obstruction has succeeded in derailing Obama’s efforts on the most important short-term issue that congress has jurisdiction over, and also derailing his efforts on the most important long-term issue that he’s facing. That’s pretty impressive for a small and unpopular minority!

I'd sort of agree with this except for one thing: Obama never really campaigned on cap-and-trade in the first place.  Sure, it was part of his energy proposal if you dug down into his website and looked for it, but during the debates, on TV ads, and in speeches, he barely even mentioned it.  It was all windmills and blue skies and green jobs.  He did virtually nothing to build any public support for the tougher parts of his energy plan.

Now, maybe that was the right thing to do.  Presidential campaigns aren't notable for going out of their way to highlight tough choices for the electorate.  Still, the result is that there's essentially no organic public support for cap-and-trade right now, which means it's wide open to demagoging by Republicans.  This in turn makes it scarier to on-the-fence Dems, which is why a really solid cap-and-trade bill not only can't get 60 votes in the Senate, it might not even be able to get 50.  Partisan gridlock may be responsible for some of that, but Obama's unwillingness to risk selling it during the campaign deserves some of the blame too.