2010 - %3, November

Obama in 2011

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 1:42 PM EST

A couple of days ago I ran a quote from Thomas Mann wondering when Obama was going to finally figure out that Republicans had declared war on him and had no interest in negotiating over legislation. Greg Sargent went back and followed up with another question: what should Obama actually do? Mann's answer:

During his first two years in office, Obama had an ambitious legislative agenda to pursue. He had to adapt his strategies to the realities of Congress, most importantly the promiscuous use of the filibuster by Republicans in the Senate and the unreliability of support on many difficult issues of a half dozen or more Democratic senators. Repeated and extended efforts at negotiations with Republicans were essential, if only to deliver all 60 Democrats/Independents once Franken was elected and Specter switched parties. His campaign rhetoric on a postpartisan politics, however naive or disengenuous, had to be given a try.

The context in the 112th Congress is entirely different. With no expectations of passing important new legislation or of garnering anything from Republicans in Congress but political bait, he should pursue his substantive agenda where he can act on his own and use Congress as a place to submit a genuinely serious set of proposals to deal with the country's more serious challenges (with no expectation that any will pass) and couple them with high visibility straight talk to the American people about the course he is proposing.

That sounds about right, if only because Obama has no real choice in the matter. The more interesting question is how effective he can be in fighting back against the conservative media machine. He hasn't shown much talent at that so far.

That still leaves the lame duck session, though, and I'm surprised there hasn't been more movement there. Obama wants to pass DADT repeal, New START, and raise the debt ceiling. Conservatives want permanent extension of all tax cuts. That sure sounds like fertile ground for a deal to me. I'd be pretty surprised if there weren't half a dozen Republicans basically willing to make a trade: their votes on the Dem priorities in return for Dems agreeing to hold a vote on permanent extension of the tax cuts. After all, none of the three Dem priorities are real killers for moderate Republicans in safe seats (or seats not coming up for reelection soon).  And permanent extension of the tax cuts isn't that big a deal for Dems. I'd trade it away for those other three things and live to fight another day on taxes.

Maybe there's just not enough floor time for all those things. I don't know. But it sure seems as if a deal here is doable.

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Chart of the Day: Your Recession

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 1:14 PM EST

Via Ryan Avent, here's a nice map from the BEA showing which states are recovering best from the recession. It's all 2009 data. I suppose I can take some cold comfort from the fact that California isn't actually at the very bottom of the list. In fact, we're about 20th from the bottom. That's a little surprising given the depth of the housing crash here and the parlous state of our finances. In less surprising news, Nevada has the worst performance, but longer term it's Michigan that's actually in the worst shape. Ryan has more at the link, including the Texas-California comparison that everyone is dying to see.

Building a Better Airport

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 12:31 PM EST

A few days ago I confessed that I was getting a little tired of all the TSA criticism. We already know what we don't like, after all: patdowns, scanners, liquid limits, shoe removals, etc. etc. Let's move on. What would a good airport security plan look like?

Luckily for me, MoJo doesn't just employ bloggers, it employs actual reporters who can ask people about this. So Nick Baumann talked to three airport security critics and asked them what we should do:

After speaking to them, I think Kevin is missing the point: the elimination of existing useless security procedures is the heart of the plan. It's not about doing something "instead" of the current system—it's about not doing things that are wasting money and time and not making us safer. It's quite possible that we're already as safe as we're going to get—and every subsequent airport security "improvement" is just reducing our freedom without improving security.

There's more than just that. Nick also produced a list of five positive suggestions from the critics: (1) Enhance baggage security, (2) Pay more attention to airport workers, (3) Randomize enhanced screenings, (4) Make security lines less vulnerable, and (5) Replicate parts of the Israeli model. To be honest, this doesn't sound super impressive. #1 is already in progress, #3 doesn't sound worthwhile, #4 might be a good idea but doesn't address airplane security, and #5 is also in progress. That leaves #2, which is also in progress but perhaps needs more attention.

Anyway, read the whole thing. To be honest, it leaves me with the impression that no one really has any big bright ideas about this. As Nick says, maybe we're already about as safe as we're going to get.

Bernanke vs. China

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 12:15 PM EST

This is great:

Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, argued Friday that currency undervaluation by China and other emerging markets was at the root of “persistent imbalances” in trade that “represent a growing financial and economic risk.”

....For the last two weeks, the Fed has been criticized for its Nov. 3 decision to inject $600 billion into the banking system through next June, resuming an effort to lower long-term interest rates....By defending the Fed’s actions, calling for global rebalancing and hinting that more fiscal stimulus might be needed, Mr. Bernanke’s remarks amount to an endorsement of crucial elements of President Obama’s economic approach.

But that endorsement, in turn, could further stoke criticism by Congressional Republicans, who say the Fed is defying voters’ skepticism about large-scale government intervention in the economy and setting the stage for inflation later.

It's not great that Bernanke has to do this. But it's great that he's putting his cards on the table. I'm truly curious about just how far Republicans are willing to go to overtly take the side of China against monetary policy designed to help the American economy. I guess we'll soon find out.

Hold the Doom and Gloom on Climate

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 11:08 AM EST

Is all the mounting evidence that humans are warming the planet only making us less likely to take action? That's the conclusion of a new study by two University of California-Berkeley researchers, "Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just World Views."

While the majority of Americans understand that the planet is warming, and about half believe that this is caused by human activity, that number has actually declined in the past few years. The researchers posit:

One possible explanation for this pattern is that information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, ultimately resulting in decreased willingness to counteract climate change.

Basically, Americans really, really believe that the world is a generally good, fair place; therefore, bad things like climate change don't happen to good people. Many people, they write, believe "that future rewards await those who judiciously strive for them, and punishments are meted out to those who deserve them"—and this doesn't jive with the looming threat of climate change in their mind, which causes them to reject it as a reality. They suggest that this could be more of a problem in the US than in other countries, as we tend to reflect these just world beliefs more strongly.

The researchers, Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, suggest that because most appeals for action on climate emphasize the potentially catastrophic consequences, this could only be making the problem worse. They conclude that "less dire messaging could be more effective for promoting public understanding of climate change research." Discussion of the positive outcomes—things like new energy technologies—goes further toward making folks less skeptical of climate change.

Read the whole study here.

Bush's Biggest WMD Lie?

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 7:00 AM EST

It's official. George W. Bush's selective and self-serving book is a best-seller. He sold 775,000 copies in the first week and the publisher has rushed to print an additional 350,000. The amount of debunking the book deserves could, well, fill a book. But there's one trenchant portion of the book that reeks with hypocrisy. In discussing the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush notes, "That was a massive blow to our credibility—my credibility—that would shake the confidence of the American people." He then adds: "No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn't find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do."

A sickening feeling every time he thought about it? Really? Let's rewind the video back to a moment that crystallized the Bush-Cheney era. It was March 24, 2004. Washington's political and media elite had gathered at the Washington Hilton for the annual Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner, which is something of a cousin to the yearly White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. As thousands of DC's swells enjoyed their surf-and-turf meal, Bush was the entertainment. The tradition is that at such affairs the president is the big speaker, and he has to be amusing, poking fun at himself and his political foes.

Bush was no fan of such gatherings, and he and his aides had decided he ought to narrate a humorous slide show, instead of doing a stand-up routine. Large video screens flashed pictures of him and his aides, which he augmented with funny quips. One showed him on the phone with a finger in his ear. He explained this shot by saying he spends "a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies." There were humorous bits about his mother and Dick Cheney.

Then Bush displayed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office. His narration: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." The audience laughed. But the joke wasn't done. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Nope," he said. "No weapons over there." More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: "Maybe under here." Laughter again.

Bush was actually joking about the missing weapons of mass destruction. He was making fun of the reason he had cited for sending Americans to war and to death, turning it into a running gag. His smile was wide and his eyes seemed bright, as the audience laughed. At the time I wrote,

Few [in the crowd] seemed to mind. His WMD gags did not prompt a how-can-you silence from the gathering. At the after-parties, I heard no complaints.I wondered what the spouse, child or parent of a soldier killed in Iraq would have felt if they had been watching C-SPAN and saw the commander-in-chief mocking the supposed justification for the war that claimed their loved ones. Bush told the nation that lives had to be sacrificed because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used (by terrorists) against the United States. That was not true. (And as [WMD search team leader David] Kay pointed out, the evidence so far shows these weapons were not there in the first place, not that they were hidden, destroyed or spirited away.) But rather than acknowledge he misinformed the public, Bush jokes about the absence of such weapons.

In yet another act reminiscent of Soviet-style revisionism, Bush in his book does not mention this dinner and his performance there. If he indeed felt ill whenever he pondered the missing WMDs—as he insists in his memoirs—how could he turn this into a crass punchline? Asking that question provides the answer. He is fibbing in his book. Moreover, this small episode is proof of a larger truth: Bush's chronicle is not a serious accounting of his years as the decider. As for the hundreds of thousands of readers who shelled out $35.00 for the book, expecting the former president to level with them, the joke is on them.

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After John Tyner: A Five-Step Plan to a Sane Airport Security System

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 7:00 AM EST

In late October, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which handles airport security in the US, began offering passengers a choice: either submit to being imaged by the new, invasive, "backscatter" scanners, which show your genitals to the security officers manning the machine, or risk having your junk touched by those same officers. New regulations require that the TSA perform "enhanced pat-downs"—which some critics have described as "groping"—of anyone who declines the controversial full-body scan. If you decline both procedures, as Californian John Tyner did this week, you can be investigated and face fines up to $11,000

Although a recent poll showed that over 80 percent of Americans are okay with the new scanners, the forced choice between the "naked" imaging and the new pat-downs has a vocal group of fliers and airport security reformers up in arms. On October 29, Atlantic magazine writer Jeff Goldberg, who's cultivated a sort of side-career as an airport security reformer, wrote a hilarious blog post about his experience with the new pat-downs. The post, in which Goldberg banters with TSA officers about his testicles, was widely circulated on the Internet. But it wasn't until John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner taped his own encounter with the TSA that the story really took off, fuelling criticism of the TSA across the media and political spectrum.

My colleague Kevin Drum is tired of hearing the complaints. So on Monday, he issued a challenge

[W]hat I haven't seen is an informed take on what airport security ought to look like. We all hate taking off our shoes and pulling out our laptops and being limited to three ounces of liquid and not being allowed to meet people at the gate anymore — we hate all of that. But if it's all useless, what should we do instead? Shouldn't someone write that article?

Ever dutiful, I set out to complete Kevin's assignment. I asked Goldberg, security expert Bruce Schneier, and airline pilot (and security critic) Patrick Smith about what their ideal airport security schemes would look like. After speaking to them, I think Kevin is missing the point: the elimination of existing useless security procedures is the heart of the plan. It's not about doing something "instead" of the current system—it's about not doing things that are wasting money and time and not making us safer. It's quite possible that we're already as safe as we're going to get—and every subsequent airport security "improvement" is just reducing our freedom without improving security.

Schneier is famous for explaining that "exactly two things have made us safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door and convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else is a waste of money." All three experts favor scrapping most of the security measures that people hate—and not necessarily replacing them with anything. Ideally, the money that was saved wouldn't be spent on airport security at all: it would be spent on trying to stop terrorists before they got to the airport. That means better-funding law enforcement and intelligence.

All that said, Goldberg, Schneier, and Smith did offer some suggestions for new or different security procedures to use "instead" of the methods we're currently relying on. Here are a few options:

  1. Enhance baggage security. All three experts mentioned this. Baggage is where the greatest danger is, and where airport security resources should be focused. "Right now the biggest threats are still bombs and explosives. That's the path of least resistance," Smith says. "All luggage going on passenger planes should be treated the same, and scanned," says Schneier. Making sure that a passenger's bags never, ever fly if he doesn't is also key. And we could do more. Here's an excerpt from a 2006 article by Schneier:
    If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn't spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.
  2. Pay more attention to airport workers. Schneier was an early advocate of background checks and increased screening for airport employees. If you're screening pilots, it's "completely absurd" not to screen the guy who is loading food on the plane, Smith says. This has improved in recent years, and the TSA now conducts random screening of airport employees. That could be broadened. Goldberg suggested considering biometric IDs for airport employees.
  3. Randomize enhanced screening. Schneier has suggested that any "enhanced" screening of passengers be "truly random." That means that while the majority of passengers wouldn't face the invasive security checks they face now, every passenger would face the risk of a thorough search. Terrorists can't avoid or plan for truly random enhanced searches, like they can with protocol-, background-, and profiling-based searches. You don't want terrorists to be able to plan their way around your security. You want them to have to get lucky.
  4. Make security lines less vulnerable. The huge lines of people waiting in airport security lines are themselves a huge target. "If you want to terrorize the country, you don't have to take down an airplane, you can just take people down in a security line," Goldberg says. "All these people packed in tightly waiting and waiting and waiting... The next day all the airports in America will be closed." Moving people through security quickly and efficiently will make the security lines themselves less of a target. 
  5. The Israeli model is unworkable on a large scale. But that doesn't mean you can't replicate parts of it. Some people believe that America should move to the Israeli model of airport security: intense screening based on asking passengers many, many questions and assessing their responses. But the experts I spoke to don't think that plan is workable in the United States. Israel has one medium-sized airport, and it would be next to impossible (and incredibly expensive) to enact Israeli-style security procedures in a country the size of the US. But that doesn't mean you couldn't have more (well-trained!) people observing passengers' behavior or asking key questions of randomly selected passengers. 

The Yes Men Hack the iPhone

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 7:00 AM EST

On Tuesday, a web site popped up to promote the new iPhone 4cf, "the same high quality phone as the original iPhone 4 with the added bonus of taking you one step closer to a world without conflict." The "conflict-free" smartphone marked a departure for Apple, which has been criticized for using "conflict minerals" from war-torn areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo in its gadgets. Design-wise, the site was a dead-ringer for the main Apple site (more images here), but by the time you got to the part where it called for the citizen's arrest of mining executives, you had to realize something was amiss.

The visually pitch-perfect site had all the hallmarks of the Yes Men. Sure enough, its URL was registered to one "Harold Schweppes" at gatt.org, one of the anticorporate pranksters' early spoof sites. But then, as of yesterday morning, the iPhone 4cf site had vanished. The closest thing to an explanation was a phony Apple press release condemning the site as "fraudulent and fictitious, and entirely the imagination of the group of pranksters who created it."

Where'd it go? It's not like the Yes Men had an ill-gotten iPhone prototype on their hands. And they're hardly afraid of incurring the wrath of corporate America. (Check out their aggressive mockery of Chevron's current PR campaign or their impersonation of the US Chamber of Commerce.) I emailed Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum, who explained that the site was pulled after its "heroic internet provider" got a nastygram from Apple. "Apple's heavy-handed and humorless reaction just shows where their big mechanical (and conflict-mineral-rich) corporate heart is at. More is learned by that than would be by keeping the website up," he wrote.

Bichlbaum said that the iPhone site will soon relaunch somewhere else. That's good, if only because it's a beautiful hoax. But beyond the graphics, the site's content is confusing. It's not immediately clear if it's presenting a "conflict-free" phone as something cool or ludicrous. And while the site is clearly poking fun at Apple's techno-utopian branding, it also praises the company's efforts to keep conflict minerals out of its products as a "step in the right direction."

Does Fixing Social Security Matter?

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Here is Atrios a few days ago on plans to shore up Social Security's finances:

The other fantasy is that if you pass some sort of plan which gets Social Security in surplus for the next 75 years according to the SSA then you get credit for "saving" Social Security and that the issue will be then off the table until the end of time. What will happen in practice is that the trustees will inevitably make minor and completely reasonable tweaks to the assumptions underlying their projections so they can once again have the trio of "nightmare," "middle ground," and "everything's awesome" scenarios, with the middle ground scenario showing problems at some point in the future. Then the pain caucus will be back to tell us just how much granny needs to starve and Wall Street will return to siphon up all the money into their gaping maws.

This is a pretty common sentiment in the progressive community, but I really don't think it's right. It's true that a certain contingent of conservatives will never give up on attacking Social Security. They'll release white papers, write periodic op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, broadcast Facebook rants about Ponzi schemes to the faithful, and agitate forever for privatization. This will never stop.

But it won't gain any traction if the official reports show that Social Security is solvent. The fact is that the middle scenario of the Social Security trustees hasn't changed dramatically over the years. In 1985, they projected that outlays would exceed revenue by 2.5 percent of taxable earnings in 2060. Last year, the forecast for 2060 showed an imbalance of about 3.5 percent of taxable earnings:

So yes: The trustees make tweaks, and those tweaks have caused the lines to move up and down over the years. But not by a huge amount. Put together a plan that closes the long-term gap on a pay-as-you-go basis—that is, without playing trust-fund games this time—and it will probably remain in pretty good shape for decades at a minimum.

That won't satisfy Cato or the Heritage Foundation, but they aren't the real opinion movers on this. The Beltway consensus is formed much more by the Washington Post editorial page and the Pete Peterson folks, and they've always been willing to accept the trustees' projections as meaningful. So once the trustees produce a chart showing Social Security in balance, all the oxygen gets taken out of the debate. The privatizers won't give up their crusade, but nobody will be listening anymore. Privatization is fundamentally unpopular, and it only edges its way into the public discourse if it can plausibly appeal to an oncoming crisis. Remove the crisis, and they've got nothing left.

This is why progressives should be more open to trying to cut a Social Security deal. It might not work, of course, but with deficit reduction in the air it's worth trying. Right now, we have multiple deficit reduction plans on the table that provide reasonable starting points for discussion; none of the plans involve privatization, and a bipartisan deal would put a stake through privatization for good; it would remove a distraction and allow us to devote our attention to more important things; and it would be good for the country and good for Social Security beneficiaries to shore up the program permanently and put the doom mongers out of business. Better now than when President Palin is in office.

Front page image courtesy of Flickr user Seth Anderson.

Scott Brown: GOP's Health Care Peace-Broker?

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Thus far, the Republican war against health care reform has been one long, blaring cry to repeal the federal law. Given just how unlikely this outcome would be under the current administration, the GOP's strategy has largely come across as political posturing meant to undermine the Democrats rather than offer any constructive alternatives or changes to the Affordable Care Act.

That was until Thursday, when Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) decided to break away from his party's all-or-nothing call for repeal, proposing a reform that could actually be an improvement on the federal law. Brown has teamed up with Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to introduce legislation that would allow states to opt out of the individual mandate to purchase health insurance more quickly. Under federal health care reform, states can appeal to the federal government for mandate waivers beginning in 2017 if they propose an acceptable alternative. Brown and Wyden want to push the start date to 2014, so that states don't have to go through the motions of complying with the federal law if they have an alternative plan in the works.