The Banality of Evil

Andrew Sullivan cites conservative pundit/intellectual Charles Krauthammer's evolving opinion of our treatment of detainees:

"I don't see it as a dark chapter in our history at all," - Charles Krauthammer, yesterday.

"The pictures are shocking and the practices appalling," - Charles Krauthammer, on Abu Ghraib, May 14, 2004.

In the first quote, Krauthammer is referring to the torture practices laid out in the memos released yesterday but Eric Holder's DOJ. In the second, he is referring to Abu Ghraib. I agree with Andrew that if you are shocked and appalled by one, you should be shocked and appalled by both -- as Andrew says, the unauthorized actions at Abu Graib were just "garbled copies" of the authorized actions taking place in black sites around the world. Andrew tries to dissect why Krauthammer's feelings have evolved -- he does some good, hard thinking on the subject. I'll add another possible explanation: time. We've grown familiar with the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the Bush Administration. We didn't know CIA officers were trapping detainees in coffin-like boxes with scary insects, but we did know they were using nudity, prolonged standing, dousing in water, stress positions, waterboarding, etc. I would argue that every person that wants to support and even return to Bush-era war on terror practices has found some way to rationalize all this horrible stuff to themselves, so that if they were shocked by it in 2004, they are not so shocked now.

And, frankly, I don't think anyone will be shocked in 20 years. We are awfully good at forgetting.

Friday Cat Blogging - 17 April 2009

Spring has fully and completely sprung, and the backyard is now kitty paradise.  With any luck, it will stay that way for the next six months.  Enjoy your weekend, everyone.

Cuba Update

The latest from Havana:

Cuba has offered a surprise olive branch to the United States ahead of Barack Obama's regional debut at the Summit of the Americas.

Raúl Castro, Cuba's president, said Havana was open to talks about "everything", including contentious issues which have bedevilled relations for half a century, in a further sign of thaw between the two governments.

"We have sent word to the US government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything."

And the American response:

The United States welcomes as an "overture" an offer of wide-ranging talks from Cuban President Raul Castro, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday.

"We have seen Raul Castro's comments. We welcome this overture. We're taking a very serious look at it," Clinton said [in Santo Domingo] at a press availability with Dominican President Leonel Fernandez.

Maybe something comes of this, maybe it doesn't.  But Fidel Castro never would have made such a conciliatory statement, and George Bush never would have responded positively to it if he had.  Times have changed on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Do Not Call

From the LA Times this morning:

Satellite television provider DirecTV Inc. agreed to pay $2.31 million to settle charges that it made more than 1 million calls to its customers who had — as was their right — placed themselves on a Do Not Call list, the Federal Trade Commission said Thursday.

And why did the company make the calls? To ask the customers to remove themselves from the list, the agency said.

I've been getting daily recorded calls for the past couple of months telling me that THIS IS MY LAST CHANCE to reduce my credit card interest rates.  Finally, instead of hanging up immediately, I decided to listen to the whole spiel and get through to an operator to ask to be taken off their list.  The first one hung up on me.  The next day I tried again.  The operator said "Thank you sir" and then hung up.  The next day I tried yet again.  Finally, I got an operator who actually acknowledged my existence.  And the calls stopped.

That was two weeks ago.  Yesterday the calls started again, though I haven't gotten one yet today.  Apparently, then, the lesson is that it takes three tries to get credit card companies to leave you alone, and even at that they only leave you alone for two weeks.  $2.31 million is too good for these people.

(And anyway, as my credit card company ought to know, I don't carry a balance on my card.  So I don't care about my interest rate anyway.  Idiots.)

Predicting Chaos

Joseph Nye recently wrote an op-ed complaining that academic political scientists have become too cloistered.  He'd like them to get out more, work on real-world problems, and take positions in government where they can apply their skills and knowledge.

Over at Dan Drezner's site, Georgetown's Raj M. Desai and James Raymond Vreeland fire back, and among other things they say this:

Nye complains about the methodological rigor in contemporary political science as an impediment to its relevance. This is ironic, given that it is precisely this rigor that has allowed modern political science to improve its forecasting power — something that is presumably vital to policymaking. We now have better statistical tools to predict, for example, the likelihood of state failure, civil conflict, democratic breakdown, and other changes in governments. Game-theoretic models can be used to analyze trade disputes and war, as well as the behavior of international organizations, terrorist movements, and nuclear states with greater precision and clarity than just a few decades before.

Really?  Modern political science has improved its forecasting power?  I didn't have the energy to click on all the links above, but I did click on the first one, which took me to the website of PITF, the Political Instability Task Force.  And sure enough, a 2005 paper titled "A Global Forecasting Model of Political Instability" claimed to be able to predict state failure with a surprisingly simple model:

Because the onset of instability is a complex process with diverse causal pathways, we originally expected that no simple model would have much success in identifying the factors associated with the onset of such crises....It was to our considerable surprise that these expectations turned out to be wrong.

....To give but one example, we found early on that lower-income countries showed a higher risk of instability. This is one of the best-established results in the conflict literature, of course, so we sought to improve on it. We not only tried substituting such other standard of living indicators as infant mortality, calories consumed per capita, nutritional status, percent living in poverty, life expectancy, and others for real per capita income, we also tried using a basket of quality-of-life indicators in a neural model that we hoped would provide a far more sophisticated and accurate specification of how income affected instability. Yet no model, no matter how complex, performed significantly better than models that simply used infant mortality (logged and normalized) as a single indicator of standard of living.

....What did matter?....As we have said, to our surprise, a quite simple model without interaction terms and with few nonlinearities is consistently over 80% accurate in distinguishing countries that experienced instability two years hence from those that remained stable.

The model essentially has only four independent variables: regime type, infant mortality [], a “bad neighborhood” indicator flagging cases with four or more bordering states embroiled in armed civil or ethnic conflict, and the presence or absence of state-led discrimination.

Interesting!  Maybe.  But aside from technical questions about whether this model really works (where's the annual prediction of which countries are going to implode within the next 24 months?), does this demonstrate that Nye was right or wrong?  PITF was government sponsored in the first place, so you'd think its academic results would now be in use at the State Department?  Are they?  And if not, why not?

EPA Declares Greenhouse Gases Pollutants

Two years after the Supreme Court directed the Environmental Protection Agency to determine if greenhouse gases were a threat to public health and the environment, the EPA formally concluded Friday that carbon dioxide and five other gases should be declared pollutants that could be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA's findings aren't surprising; most everyone knew these gases—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride—were harmful. Those who denied it were simply denying the reality of climate change. Unfortunately for us, men and women from that pack of stubborn detractors ran the federal government for the last eight years.

David Doniger at the Natural Resources Defense Council touched on this when he credited President Obama and EPA director Lisa Jackson with "going a long way to restore respect for both science and law. The era of defying science and the Supreme Court has ended."

Doniger is correct; the EPA's declaration does go a long way. But that just demonstrates how out of touch—whether because of hard-headed ignorance or the influence of lobbyists and money from polluting industries—the last administration was with the real world. A federal agency acknowledging and accepting scientific evidence is always going to look like a big stride in the right direction if that agency has spent the last decade doing the exact opposite.

As for the polluters affected by the EPA's declaration, the Times reports they are cautiously reacting to the news because they're hopeful the climate change legislation in the House Energy and Commerce Committee will give them a break. That would have been the case during the 16 years John Dingell headed the committee. But Henry Waxman is much less polluter-friendly than Dingell was during his tenure in the House.

Prosecuting Torture

Several emailers want to know why I support Obama's decision not to prosecute the CIA agents who engaged in torture of prisoners during the Bush administration.  To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that I do, but in case you're interested, here are the arguments against prosecution that have run through my mind:

First: I hate the idea of spending time prosecuting the little guys while the big fish go free.  If there's anyone we should be prosecuting, it's Bush, Cheney, Addington, Bybee, Yoo, and Tenet.  Until that happens, it's hard to justify prosecuting their underlings.

Second: Every agent would be entitled to a vigorous defense, which would almost certainly require them to make extensive use of classified information.  The government would naturally invoke the state secret doctrine in virtually every case, which would make it nearly impossible to conduct trials that are both fair and reasonably public.

Third: This would be a very, very big operation involving hundreds of prosecutions.  It would almost certainly drag on for many years, and although I'm not a lawyer, my sense is that successful prosecution would be extremely difficult.  The result would quite likely be a long, gruesome, process that would mostly disappear from public view except toward the end, when nearly everyone is acquitted.  Frankly, this might be worse than nothing at all.

Fourth: "I was just following orders" is obviously not an acceptable excuse in cases of clearly illegal instructions.  On the other hand, CIA agents should be able to rely on OLC opinions without constant fear that a successor administration will decide on different legal interpretations.  There isn't a hard and fast rule here, but it's legitimately something that needs to be balanced.

Anyway, my mind is still not made up on this.  It's just a really hard problem.  But I will say that I find #1 persuasive almost all by itself.  If we're going to prosecute the top guys, that's one thing.  But if we don't, it would be a massive miscarriage of justice to prosecute the field agents just because that's politically more feasible.  We really don't want to live in a country that does such things.

Vajayjay Meets Registered Trademark

You know a term has made it when there are patents pending. In the Urban Dictionary under the most popular spelling "vajayjay," the term benefited from the Oprah effect a couple years ago after Lady O gave it a bump. Firmly in pop culture verbiage, the vaginal euphemism has now seen its first official product (though not its first trademark application, apparently) as the Vaj-j Visor. The visor, which is meant to cover the goods during waxing, depillatories, and other landscaping efforts, is the brainchild of, yes, VJJ Enterprises, Inc. (three ladies, two dudes), though it doesn't seem to license any other vagina products at the moment.

The plastic insert claims to be "the first ever women's cup" and it comes in green and purple and pink. You have to discard it after a single use, which sounds a lot like other feminine hygiene products, spend and toss, buy some more. Protective men's gear, like the jockstrap and the cup, these are manly items (not in pink, green, and purple) that can hang for years (sometimes too long) in lockers. So let's see if the VJJ people can come up with a reuseable product. And one more wondering: Why wasn't vagina part of even one of the possible names batted around by the VJJ crew? Probably because they don't want to scare people off since the vagina is scary. Or maybe it's because vagina isn't even an adequate anatomical term (though neither is Hoo Ha or Beaver) leaving out the all-important clitoris, labia, and vulva.

I'm glad that the ladies who take so much care down there have options now, but it's too bad that the "women's cup" is all about cosmetic improvements. Where's the cup for horsebackriding, for hockey, for soccer? Because sometimes we need to protect our privates simply for the good of the goods, not just for tanning and waxing and making ourselves pretty.

CDS and Bankruptcy

Via Megan McArdle, the Financial Times reports that credit default swaps may be responsible for forcing more companies into bankruptcy proceedings.  The problem, apparently, is that normally bondholders have an incentive to negotiate a deal that would stave off Chapter 11, since a judge in a bankruptcy settlement is likely to force them to take big haircuts on their debt.  If they can do a little better in a negotiated settlement, they'll play ball.

But if their debt is insured via CDS, and the U.S. government has made it clear that CDS will be paid off 100% even if the insurer is underwater, they're actually better off if the company defaults.  From the FT on a couple of recent failures:

"We have seen CDS becoming a significant factor" when negotiations on out-of-court restructurings fail, said Alan Kornberg, the partner in charge of the bankruptcy practice at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Rice, speaking generally. "We used to talk about the practice theoretically but now we see cases where it is hard to get lenders to agree to tender or to compromise and then you find out that these holdouts had significant CDS protection."

....Some creditors, including Citigroup, which held a small exposure to AbitibiBowater, hedged themselves in the CDS market, meaning their economic interest in the deal was different to lenders who had not bought credit insurance, according to people familiar with the matter. Citigroup declined to comment.

Lawyers say CDS holdings were also a factor in the default and filing for Chapter 11 protection of General Growth Properties this week. Restructuring advisers expect many more such cases involving so-called fallen angels, or firms originally investment grade, since CDS was widely sold on such names.

Presumably this happens because CDS buyers get paid off in the event of a Chapter 11 proceeding, but they don't if they've negotiated the haircut themselves.  This makes sense, since doing otherwise would align incentives too far in the other direction (i.e.,  bondholders would have no incentive to negotiate any value at all in a settlement if they're going to be made whole regardless).  Megan suggests that maybe CDS issuers should be allowed to join reorganization negotiations, the same way ordinary insurers are.  Perhaps so, though that doesn't help with the trillions of dollars of existing CDS whose terms are already set in stone.

Sigh.  Yet another problem for CDS fans to address.

Chris Dodd's Big Money Funders

You may have seen a Connecticut Post report floating around the Internet this morning that looks at Sen. Chris Dodd's fundraising report from the first quarter of 2009 and finds that there are only five citizens from Connecticut who donated. Those five plucky Nutmeg Staters gave a total of $4,250. Dodd has a 33 percent popularity rating and is losing in hypothetical match-ups to basically every Republican pollsters can find. The citizens of CT clearly don't want him around. So how did Dodd raise $1,048,674 in just three months?

As Daniel Schulman and I report in our story today, it mostly came from Big Finance. Here's the breakdown. Executives and PACs representing banks, financial services companies, and real estate brokerages gave Dodd at least $299,000. (NB: That means the folks that Dodd, chairman of the Banking committee, is supposed to oversee gave 70 times more than the folks Dodd is supposed to represent.) Insurers and health care interests gave $48,000. And lobbyists, many of whom have Wall Street clients, chipped in $62,800 more.

So there you have it. It's no wonder the folks that Dodd represents aren't terribly excited about having him back. It's not clear who he represents anymore.

Update: Keep in mind, there is a way to eliminate this whole money-in-politics game....