2009 - %3, February

Bobby Jindal Outfoxes Everyone

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 8:56 AM EST

Well, don't I feel stupid. Last week I said that Governor Bobby Jindal's claim that he was considering turning down stimulus cash because of his fiscally conservative principles was just so much political grandstanding. To lay the groundwork for a future national campaign, I argued, Jindal was using the press generated by his objections to position himself as the most conservative member of the GOP's presidential wannabe crowd. But when push came to shove, he'd obviously take the money. Right?

Wrong. Bobby Jindal is smarter than me. He figured out a way to take the vast majority of the funding set out for Louisiana (about 98 percent, according to TPM) while still earning headlines like "Jindal rejects $98 million in stimulus spending."

What's more, the funding that Jindal is turning down is slated for unemployment benefits, a favorite punching bag of the conservative Right. Jindal has already issued quotes about how the stimulus funding would force Louisiana to raise business taxes in order to hand cash out to lazy slobs who can't be bothered to get a job. (That's not actually true; Jindal could sunset the increased unemployment benefits when the federal funding runs out.) If you read Stephanie Mencimer's excellent piece on welfare from the last issue of MoJo, you know that the entitlement systems in the South are badly perverted, and that an extra $98 million could do a lot of good in a state like Louisiana. But who cares, right? This way, future candidate Jindal gets to push all the right buttons.

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Embargo of Cuba Nearing an End?

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 8:06 AM EST
During the campaign, candidate Obama spoke of easing restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel back to their ancestral island and to send money to relatives living under Castro's thumb--small steps that nevertheless offered a welcome change to the confused and antiquated US policy toward Cuba's communist regime. But the realization that things have gone terribly wrong is not exclusive to Democrats. Today, Richard Lugar, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will release a staff report critical of decades of misguided and often counterproductive US policy vis-a-vis Cuba. (Thanks go to Steve Clemons for posting an early draft.) The report is shocking in its indictment of past approaches and offers a real opportunity for bipartisan cooperation on righting one of US foreign policy's most self-defeating wrongs.


From the report:
Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy, and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid South Africa.
After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of "bringing democracy to the Cuban people," while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population.
The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. Nevertheless, we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from peamasher.

Common Sense on Hedge Funds

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:03 AM EST
Noam Scheiber points to some genuinely good news in today's New York Times piece about Barack Obama's upcoming budget outline.  From the Times:

The president will propose to tax the investment income of hedge fund and private equity partners at ordinary income tax rates, which are now as high as 35 percent and could return to 39.6 percent under his plans, instead of at the capital gains rate, which is 15 percent at most.

Senior Democrats in Congress joined with Republicans in 2007 to oppose that increase. But with Wall Street discredited and lucrative executive compensation a political target, the provision could prove more popular among lawmakers.

This refers to the "carried interest" loophole, which allows hedge fund management fees to be counted as capital gains on the theory that — well, there was never really much of a theory for it at all.  If you invest your own money and make a return, that's a capital gain.  But if you get a piece of the return for managing someone else's investment, that's a management fee.  It's ordinary income, and there's really no plausible theory under which it should be counted as capital gains.

Except, of course, under the theory that hedge fund managers would prefer to pay low capital gains taxes on their income, and since hedge fund managers contribute lots of money to political campaigns they usually get whatever they want.  It really was just about that crude, and Democrats displayed colossal cowardice when they refused to eliminate this loophole two years ago.  It's good to see that Obama is going to try to embarrass them into finally doing the right thing and making rich people pay the same rate on their income as everyone else.

Sean Penn in Oscar Upset

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:02 AM EST
Despite the terrible odds given by America's favorite statistician Nate Silver, Sean Penn snagged the Oscar for Best Actor over favorite Mickey Rourke at the Academy Awards Sunday night in Los Angeles. It was an astonishing upset, on an equal level with 2005 2006's Best Picture shocker Crash over Brokeback Mountain, and it's hard not to take the award as a bit of a comeuppance for the gays. Hooray gays! Penn gave a classy, heartfelt speech, ending with a plea for equal rights for gays and lesbians, but the most important part about Penn's win seems to be the acknowledgment of what was truly the greater performance. While Rourke's comeback was admirable, it was Penn who buried himself inside his character, elevating Gus Van Sant's Milk above a faithful retelling of a great documentary into something special. Penn's speech called the Academy "commie, homo-loving sons of guns," which is pretty funny, considering Brokeback's loss, but when you think about it, the Academy really does like straights who play gay: Tom Hanks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Charlize Theron, Hillary Swank and William Hurt have all won Oscars for queer characters in the last 25 years. Hmm. One of these days, gays will win for playing straight! (Go ahead and insert Hugh Jackman joke here.)

In other Oscar news, Slumdog Millionaire dominated, as expected, with eight total awards including Best Picture, while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button won three of its thirteen nominations. The ceremony started off amusingly, with Jackman performing a cute song-and-dance number paying tribute to the nominees, but went downhill from there—using five previous actress and actor winners to present the current nominees was kind of creepy. One of us, one of us! In any event, one hopes that Slumdog's win might open some doors for Bollywood to gain a greater audience, but in reality, Slumdog has about as much to do with Bollywood as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had to do with Hong Kong cinema, so that might be a little far-fetched. Either way, I won the Oscar pool for the third year in a row (thanks, Sound Editing!), so I'm spending my ten bucks on a ticket to actually see one of the movies.

Where Have All The Conservatives Gone?

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 11:58 PM EST

Where have all the conservatives gone?

Oh, they're out there, trying to taint the Obama stimulus by tagging it as wasteful spending (even while accepting the funds). But as S.E. Cupp, a rightwing author and commentator, reports, this year's Conservative Political Action Conference is notably short on rightwing starpower. She writes:

A number of the party's biggest names, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, aren't on the speakers' list so far, either. And Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- the Angelina Jolie of the GOP -- will address the conference only via video.

For those hoping that Sarah Palin will run for president, this may be bad news. In years past, GOP presidential wannabes--even moderates--flocked to CPAC to court (or kowtow to) their party's most ardent grassroots activists. The group usually holds a straw poll, and a good showing--or just a decent appearance before the crowd--could generate presidential buzz for a potential candidate within the politerait and conservative circles. (Is it possible that Palin has decided that the wise thing to do as a 2012 contender is to not attend and avoid placing herself once again in a spotlight that could show her shortcomings?) This year, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Pence--don't know Mike Pence? he's a leading conservative congressman--will be at CPAC, but Cupp bemoans the absence of bigger box office draws. Does that mean she's disappointed that California Governor Arnold "Give Me that Stimulus Money" Schwarzenegger won't be attending?

Her gripe, it seems, is not really with the line-up. It's with the "feel" of the conference; there's no excitement about conservatives these days, she complains. Well, wake up and smell the economic collapse. If there was ever a cornerstone of conservatism, it was free-market fetishism. And that's a really tough sell nowadays. In noting what to expect at this year's CPAC, she reports:

We just elected Michael Steele the first African American head of the Republican National Committee. CPAC will be his first major public appearance and a chance to show what kind of leader he'll be. Republican lawmakers will weigh in on the stimulus bill, discuss their still-fresh experiences dealing with the Obama administration and tell us what they think we need to do while the Democrats are in power.

Conservative bloggers and activists will lay out the grass-roots efforts we can make to reach new voters, or those who abandoned us last year. Young Republican chapters will reach out to high school and college students and ponder what they might do to get a piece of the youth voter pie.

Wow, grassroots networking. But what's the right going to do about convincing the American public we ought to have less regulation, less government and more free enterprise? Or about reviving the culture wars? She doesn't really address these fundamental matters. Conservatives held power in Congress from 1995 through 2006, and a self-proclaimed conservative was in the White House from 2001 to 2009. They had a damn good chance and blew it big--twice. Will there be a panel discussion on that? More important, can one conference deal with the fact that the basic tenets of conservatism have been rendered irrelevant and inoperative? Probably not. But maybe at least Huckabee will whip out his bass and rock on.

Nate Silver Finally Gets One Wrong

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 8:49 PM EST
Penélope Cruz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress?!?  But Nate Silver said it would be Taraji P. Henson.  Can we ever trust him again?

UPDATE: Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix bit was pretty funny.

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Mau Mauing Rahm Emanuel

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 6:13 PM EST
Matt Yglesias thinks Rahm Emanuel should stop whining about Paul Krugman's criticism of the stimulus bill.  In fact, he should thank him:

If you propose something, and every single progressive in all the land immediately lauds it as the greatest bill ever written, then your legislation is now an extreme left proposal and it’s doomed. If you’re going to make concessions to political reality then you need to weather a bit of criticism from your left — that’s what establishes the proposal as moderate and sensible. Things like “some liberal economists such as Paul Krugman say the proposal is too small” is a helpful piece of context-setting that prevents the proposal from appearing too radical.

This sounds right to me, but I wonder if it's really true?  Let's turn it around.  When Rush Limbaugh criticized George Bush's immigration plan, did that convince liberals that maybe Bush's position wasn't so bad after all?  Maybe it did!  But I'm not so sure about that.

(At least in the short term.  Constant kvetching can certainly change the center of gravity of public opinion over periods of years or decades.  But that's a different thing.)

Anyway, it seems like there ought to be some clever way to test this theory.  In general, does criticism from the extreme left or right help a bill's prospects with moderates?  How might we figure this out?  Any ideas?

DNA Testing

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 5:45 PM EST
Over the past few years hundreds of innocent people have been freed from prison thanks to DNA evidence.  So why isn't it more widely available? Answer: because prosecutors and state governments tend to fight DNA testing requests tooth and nail.  Defense attorney and civil libertarians are on the opposite side, of course, and shortly the Supreme Court will hear a case deciding whether they'll get their wish to make testing more widely available:

They are opposed by victims rights groups; the vast majority of states, which have a patchwork of laws granting DNA access; and the federal government. The governments say that creating a constitutional right to the testing would infringe on states' rights, overwhelm them with frivolous demands and create an endless right of appeal for those convicted of the most violent crimes.

Set aside the states' right argument for now.  I'm more interested in the question of whether constitutional protections for DNA testing would, in fact, result in lots of frivolous demands and endless appeals.

If there were, literally, no restrictions at all, maybe that's what would happen.  Maybe every con with time on his hands would demand test after test just for the hell of it.  Maybe.  But if the court required even a minimal showing of cause, wouldn't frivolous requests dry up?  What's the point, after all?  If you're guilty, then you know perfectly well that DNA isn't going to get you off the hook.  So why bother?

That's why I've never found this argument very persuasive.  Prisoners who know they're guilty have little incentive to demand DNA tests.  Conversely, though, prosecutors have loads of incentive to deny DNA tests, even — or maybe especially — in cases where it might well prove wrongful conviction.  This suggests that the court should adopt some kind of balancing test: not an absolute right to endless DNA testing, but at least a presumption in favor of it.  Make the hurdle just high enough to deter the genuinely frivolous, but low enough that nobody has to rot in prison for years just because they didn't have access to a simple test.  We are, after all, in favor of not imprisoning innocent people.  Right?

Rahm Emanuel

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 2:17 PM EST
I sometimes get the feeling that it's impossible to write a bad profile of Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.  Or at least, impossible to write a boring profile.  The guy's just too good a quote machine.  Here he is in Ryan Lizza's recent New Yorker piece complaining about critics who didn't like the way the stimulus bill turned out:

“They have never worked the legislative process,” Emanuel said of critics like the Times columnist Paul Krugman, who argued that Obama’s concessions to Senate Republicans — in particular, the tax cuts, which will do little to stimulate the economy — produced a package that wasn’t large enough to respond to the magnitude of the recession. “How many bills has he passed?”

....The stimulus bill was essentially held hostage to the whims of Collins, Snowe, and Specter, but if Al Franken, the apparent winner of the disputed Minnesota Senate race, had been seated in Washington, and if Ted Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, had been regularly available to vote, the White House would have needed only one Republican to pass the measure. “No disrespect to Paul Krugman,” Emanuel went on, “but has he figured out how to seat the Minnesota senator?” (Franken’s victory is the subject of an ongoing court challenge by his opponent, Norm Coleman, which the national Republican Party has been happy to help finance.) “Write a fucking column on how to seat the son of a bitch. I would be fascinated with that column. O.K.?” Emanuel stood up theatrically and gestured toward his seat with open palms. “Anytime they want, they can have it,” he said of those who are critical of his legislative strategies. “I give them my chair.”

Read the rest, of course.  It doesn't really turn over any fresh ground, but it's still good stuff for political junkies.

Sleep

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 1:23 PM EST
All of us have things we believe in even though we don't really have any evidence for them.  One of mine has to do with the causal direction of depression and sleep problems.  The conventional wisdom says that depression causes you to sleep badly, but I've long thought it was more likely the other way around: poor sleep makes you depressed.  So I'm happy to report that Science™ has finally caught up with my uninformed prejudices:

Doctors studying psychiatric disorders noticed long ago that erratic sleep was somehow connected. Adults with depression, for instance, are five times as likely as the average person to have difficulty breathing when asleep, while between a quarter and a half of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suffer from sleep complaints, compared with just 7 per cent of other children.

Until recently, however, the assumption that poor sleep was a symptom rather than a cause of mental illness was so strong that nobody questioned it. "It was just so easy to say about a patient, well, he's depressed or schizophrenic, of course he's not sleeping well - and never to ask whether there could be a causal relationship the other way," says Robert Stickgold, a sleep researcher at Harvard University. Even when studies did seem to point in the other direction, the findings were largely overlooked, he says.

....So how does poor sleep lead to behavioural and psychological problems? Some of the links are apparent. For example, every parent knows that tired children usually become hyperactive rather than sleepy. Sleep disruption also bumps up stress hormone levels, which could contribute to daytime anxiety, a component of many psychiatric disorders. More intriguingly, it now seems sleep disruption can fundamentally interfere with the brain's ability to process emotion and to react to an emotional stimulus in an appropriate way.

[Etc. etc.]

I used to look forward to sleep.  It was relaxing; it was pleasant; it would make me feel better about the world.  But it's been a long time since that was so.  Now it's just something I do when I get tired every night, with no prospect that I'll feel anything other than tired and grumpy when I wake up in the morning and then stay that way pretty much all day.  Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong enough with my sleep that it's obvious on a routine sleep test.  I found out years ago that I have mild sleep apnea, but it's pretty mild and the fix is a C-PAP machine, which I tried but was never able to tolerate for an entire night.  So no help there.

But now, science is on the case!  Hooray!  Maybe they'll finally start taking this stuff seriously.  Maybe.  (Via Andrew Sullivan.)