2009 - %3, April

Obama's Message to Netanyahu

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 2:54 PM EDT

From President Barack Obama's March 24 press conference:

Question: Mr. President, you came to office pledging to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. How realistic do you think those hopes are now, given the likelihood of a prime minister [Benyamin Netanyahu] who is not fully signed up to a two-state solution and a foreign minister who has been accused of insulting Arabs?

Obama: It's not easier than it was, but I think it's just as necessary.

A statement put out by the White House on April 1:

The President spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu today. The President congratulated the Prime Minister after his swearing-in yesterday, and reaffirmed the United States' steadfast commitment to Israel and its security. The President said he looked forward to working closely with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to address issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Arab-Israeli peace.

A slight change in tone, isn't it? But that's to be expected. Official pronouncments often do not match less-guarded statements. But I wonder if two discussed Obama's press conference comment--and whether Obama sent Netanyahu a message any more pointed than the congrats described above.

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The Republican "Budget"

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 1:59 PM EDT
I won't even pretend that I understand most of the alternative budget unveiled today by House Republicans.  The gist of it, however, is the classic, time-tested approach taken by "fiscal conservatives" who are too gutless to propose actual, concrete spending cuts: an across-the-board spending freeze.  (Except for the Pentagon, natch, because they're such paragons of efficient procurement.)  That way they can release a 53-page document without taking the political risk of naming an actual program that will get cut.

Even by those standards, though, the section on Social Security is a masterpiece.  Here's the nut of their proposal:

Without reform, [the Social Security] Trust Fund will reach exhaustion in 2041; as a result, future retirees face across-the-board benefit cuts of up to 22 percent in that year....To head off these severe consequences, the budget creates a trigger in Social Security to help extend the program’s viability....The recommendation includes:

• Reducing the 15-percent Primary Insurance Amount bracket by 0.25 percentage points per year, from the date at which SSA finds it cannot meet scheduled benefits within 5 years

• Phasing in the proposal. Because the Trust Fund currently is expected to reach exhaustion by 2041, this provision would not arise until 2036. It would not affect those at or near retirement, and no savings in Social Security are assumed in the budget.

That's it?  Seriously?  They claim Social Security is going bankrupt and their proposal is to reduce PIA by 0.25% per year starting in 2036?  This takes gutlessness to a whole new level.

Later on, it turns out, they drop the mask and admit that this is nothing more than a proposal designed to "begin a process" that will eventually "move toward a consensus for saving and strengthening Social Security."  That's all very New-Agey, but what happened to hard-nosed fiscal rectitude?  Where are the private accounts, the means testing, and the increased age requirements?  Why aren't Republicans standing tall and sticking to their conservative roots on this stuff?  Where's the conviction, guys?

In other news, the Republican budget also proposes privatizing Medicare and putting in place a bunch of tax cuts for the rich, including (of course) temporary elimination of the capital gains tax.  That's bold, innovative thinking.  I'm sure Rush and Sean will be drooling.

Who Runs Pakistan?

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 1:01 PM EDT
So who really runs Pakistan these days?  Foreign Affairs sponsored a roundtable of experts that produced this rollicking, contentious clash of opinions:

Sumit Ganguly: Is there any doubt about that? The army, for all practical purposes, has been and remains in charge....Shaun Gregory: I agree with Sumit on this. The civilian government is very weak. The Pakistani army retains de facto control of foreign policy, defense policy, internal security, and nuclear policy, and will defend its expanded economic interests....Ashley Tellis: Sumit has it dead-on. The army rules on all the critical issues important to it: the nuclear program, the budget, security policy, relations with key foreign partners....Aqil Shah: The military has withdrawn from exercising direct government power by passing the baton to elected civilians, as it has done several times in the past, but it would be naive to expect it to loosen its control over what it sees as its legitimate "structural" missions [...] Once the army chief signs off on a policy, the costs of disobedience can be prohibitively high....Stephen Cohen: The army cannot govern Pakistan but won't let anyone else govern it either. It's a chicken-egg situation, worsened by the total collapse of the economy and the withering away of state institutions.

Hmmm.  Reading between the lines, then, the answer is "the Pakistani army"?  Right?  So, to echo Freud, what does the army want?  Aqil Shah again:

Any desire to deal firmly with cross-border militancy is trumped by the military's perceived need to retain its ties to this or that militant group in order to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. The army continues to fear that the United States could simply lose interest in Afghanistan once it captures the senior leadership of al Qaeda (as Washington did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan), leaving Pakistan exposed to Indian (and Russian) "encirclement".

....There appears to be a pervasive belief in the army, among both mid-level and senior officers, that the United States and India are destabilizing FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and the rest of the country as a prelude to depriving Pakistan of its nuclear weapons. Officers who have served in FATA have told me that they face a U.S.-Indian combined offensive and that the local Taliban receive their funds from across the border. The army might inculcate such beliefs in order to motivate its soldiers, but they also connect to the military's larger worldview. For the generals, the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal is proof of an evolving Indo-U.S., or even Indo-U.S.-Israeli, strategic alliance — not to mention American duplicity.

This is a point that Matt Yglesias is fond of making, and for good reason: we tend to think that foreign policy everywhere is focused on the United States, but it ain't so.  Pakistan obviously cares a lot about its relationship with America, but it cares a whole lot more about its relationships with India, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, which are right on their doorstep and are never going away.

Stevens Walks

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 12:12 PM EDT
Prosecutorial misconduct in the Ted Stevens case will apparently allow Stevens to go free:

The Justice Department filed court papers this morning asking a federal judge to toss out the conviction of former senator Ted Stevens (R–Alaska) on corruption charges.

....In a statement, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he and other Justice lawyers had reviewed the case and "concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial."

...."The Department's Office of Professional Responsibility will conduct a thorough review of the prosecution of this matter," he added. "This does not mean or imply that any determination has been made about the conduct of those attorneys who handled the investigation and trial of this case."

It's a shame that Stevens is getting off, since the evidence very strongly suggests that he was guilty.  But misconduct by federal prosecutors is far too widespread, and it stays that way because it's almost never punished by anything more than a tonguelashing.  Good for Holder for sending a message that he takes it more seriously than that.

Taking Sides on the Death of Expertise

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

I've written before about the death of real expertise in Washington -- this nagging sense that if every learned person is pushing an agenda, and if every lawmaker listens exclusively to those learned persons that he or she already agrees with, policy debates will never seek out best solutions but instead necessarily devolve into partisan bickering matches. I'm not saying everyone must embrace bipartisanship and trend to the middle to find solutions that partially satisfy everyone (i.e. High Broderism). I'm saying that every once in a while, conservatives ought to be able to look at hard data and discern that what has typically been considered a Democratic policy solution to a particular problem works best to resolve that problem, and thus accept and vote for it. Liberals ought to do the same. And experts ought to be able to guide lawmakers to these conclusions, instead of always entrenching them further in their beliefs.

Now, all of that said, it is clear that Republicans have done more to bastardize the idea of expertise than Democrats. The most obvious example of this is global warming, where conservatives have spent over a decade not just ignoring a scientific consensus, but manufacturing scientific uncertainty in order to muddle public opinion on the issue. Scientific expertise -- from truly unbiased government institutions like NASA, NOAA, the EPA, etc. -- has long been ignored by a conservative movement that sees science at odds with business.

But it goes further. Conservatives have a built-in ideological reason for opposing expertise on all subjects, not just science and the environment. They fundamentally do not believe government should play an active role in Americans' lives. That has ramifications everywhere. If you believe that, you don't look for a way to manage the financial sector that protects investors, homeowners, and others who have a stake in Wall Street; you promote deregulation. You don't listen to career FDA employees who doubt the efficacy or safety of certain drugs; you push pharmaceuticals to market. And you slash budgets at places where federal employees develop expertise so that they can study the atmosphere, or keep our water clean, or prevent fraud in federal contracts and grants.

David Frum, who is emerging as the conservative movement's most prominent internal critic, understands this. A hands-off approach to government necessarily entails a denigration and depreciation of expertise. From the National Post:

Travel to Cuba

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 11:47 AM EDT
A sliver of good news out of Congress:

A bipartisan group of senators predicted Tuesday that Congress was ready to pass legislation to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.

....Sponsors said the bill would free Americans to travel to the one place in the world they can't go and encourage Cubans to push for democratic reforms by exposing them to new people and information.

The trade embargo against Cuba has long outlived whatever usefulness it might have had.  It accomplishes nothing and has turned us into an international joke.  Still, it's well within the bounds of normal international relations.  I don't like it, but it's not fundamentally antidemocratic or an assault on basic freedoms.

The travel ban has always been in a separate class.  Autocracies and dictatorships control the movements of their subjects, but free citizens of a liberal democracy should be able to travel wherever they want. So whatever happens with the trade embargo, removing the travel ban should be a no-brainer.  This is America, not North Korea.

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No Effective Oversight for $3 Trillion in Bailout Funds

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 11:40 AM EDT
On Tueday, three government watchdogs testified about TARP and other government bailout programs before the Senate finance committee. They offered some profoundly troubling observations about the government's inability to monitor and oversee effectively the spending (and lending) of nearly $3 trillion in bailout funds. It's a bit surprising that their testimony received about 1 percent of the media attention given to those AIG bonuses (a paltry $165 million) and sparked about 1 percent (or less) of the public outrage generated by those same bonuses. But I was invited to talk about the testimony with David Shuster on MSNBC:
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

More Contracts, More Fraud, Less Scrutiny

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 11:20 AM EDT
The Bush administration presided over explosive growth in defense-related contracting. Part of it was the natural result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; part of it was ideology and a deeply held belief that anything government can do the private sector can do better and cheaper. And maybe so. I won't argue it here. But whatever your views on the role of private companies in military operations, there's little question that the flurry of Pentagon contracts issued since 9/11 has, in numerous instances, led to gross abuse and corruption by companies that took advantage of weak regulation and a Congress that, despite much breathless posturing, has still failed to do much to bring things under control. The numbers speak for themselves. As the Pentagon doubled its contracting budget, the number of criminal investigations for contract fraud declined dramatically. According to a report released today by the Center for Public Integrity:
Defense contracting grew from about $200 billion in fiscal year 1993 at the start of the Clinton presidency to nearly $400 billion in FY 2008 at the end of President George W. Bush’s administration (1993 dollars adjusted for inflation to 2008 dollars). But Defense Department investigators during the Bush administration sent 76 percent fewer contracting fraud and corruption cases to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecution than were referred under Clinton, according to Justice Department data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.
“No one is minding the store,” said William G. Dupree, a former director of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), which investigates contracting fraud. “Someone needs to address that.”
The FBI, which is also involved in such probes, sent 55 percent fewer government-wide contracting fraud and corruption cases to prosecutors for the same time periods reviewed. These cases cut across all agencies, but the Defense Department was responsible for more than 65 percent of federal contracting during the Bush administration. And FBI statistics requested by the Center focusing just on the Pentagon document a similar trend. In 2001, the Bureau referred 213 Defense Department procurement fraud cases to Justice Department prosecutors; by 2008, the total had fallen to 86.

This Just In: Bush Justice Department Incompetent

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 10:50 AM EDT

The withdrawal of charges against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens serves as more proof of what we already knew: the Bush DOJ couldn't do anything right. Attorney General Eric Holder has decided that "it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial," according to a statement he released this morning. Why drop the charges? Because the Bush Justice Department, which handled the prosecution, couldn't, well, handle the prosecution. DOJ lawyers were accused (rightly, according to Holder) of withholding crucial information from the defense, and the trial subsequently degenerated into a series of embarrassments for an already-demoralized department. At one point, the DOJ lawyers were even held in contempt of court. Holder has asked the DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility to look into the matter. Thankfully, the one thing the DOJ has been good at recently is releasing damning OPR reports (PDF, PDF, PDF) about how corrupt, incompetent, and politicized it became during the Bush years.

Should We Really Be Marking to Market?

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 10:38 AM EDT

Kevin still likes the idea in general, but Joseph Stiglitz doesn't like it when it's applied to Timothy Geithner's public-private investment plan:

Paying fair market values for the assets will not work. Only by overpaying for the assets will the banks be adequately recapitalized. But overpaying for the assets simply shifts the losses to the government. In other words, the Geithner plan works only if and when the taxpayer loses big time.

I get the sense Geithner knows this, too. Last week I was speaking with a Congressional staffer who said quite bluntly that the big problem with marking these assets to market was that there was no market for them. So Geithner had to create that market, and the only way to make it worthwhile for the banks and investors is to allow banks to overvalue those assets, even if the banks are unloading their worst, most risky ones. If the asset tanks, the bank—and perhaps the economy in the long run—still wins, the private investor loses a little, and the taxpayer loses big.