Nearly two decades ago, lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh and composer Jan Hammer wrote a ditty called "Torture" for a Star Wars musical that never came to light. The tune was supposed to be crooned by a robot controlled by Darth Vader. Instead, it's being released to lament the robotic torture policies controlled by Vader's doppelganger, Dick Cheney, for Friday's U.N. International Day in Support of Torture Victims and Survivors.

Today, the words ring eerily true. Sample lyric: "For you it's just a pain/For us it's justified/But you're too self-absorbed/To see it from our side."

Watch the song's YouTube treatment—set to creepy old cartoons—here:

Over at The Opinionator they round up some blog reaction to Barack Obama's increasingly tough talk on Iran and then say this:

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum remarked on the shift in tone on Iran without being so fazed by it.

Reading this reminded me of one of the dangers of blogging: it's such a conversational medium that you sometimes forget which parts you've said aloud and which parts you haven't.  I've been emailing and chatting (and just thinking) about Iran the same as everyone else, and one of the things I've been emailing and chatting and thinking about is the strong likelihood that the Iranian regime is going to crack down ever harder as the protests continue, producing ever greater brutality and ever greater bloodshed.  So far, for good and sound reasons, Obama has taken a restrained tone toward this, but if it continues he's obviously going to react ever more strongly and more concretely.  And he'll have to do it without either overpromising or actively making things worse for the protesters.  It's already a tough tightrope to walk, and it's going to get tougher.

So the reason I wasn't fazed by Obama's statement today is because I've been expecting it all along.  And unless the opposition has already fizzled, I expect Obama's position to get even more difficult.  I haven't actually said any of that on the blog, however, which might make my reaction today seem a little jaded.  Really, though, it wasn't: it was just the natural endpoint of a conversation I've been having for the past week outside the blog.  Now, with this post, I'm letting the blog catch up to my brain.  Finally.

An obscure executive order issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 has given Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the power to approve or deny a massive oil pipeline between Canada's controversial tar sands and U.S. oil refineries.

In the coming weeks, the State Department will decide whether to grant a permit for the  1,000-mile Alberta Clipper pipeline, which would be capable of carrying up to 800,000 barels per day of crude oil--or about 8 percent of net U.S. oil imports--from the tar sands in eastern Alberta to refineries on Lake Superior in Wisconsin.

Under current law--rarely invoked, given that oil imports typically arrive in the U.S. by tanker--the Secretary of State must receive all applications for the construction of "pipelines, conveyor belts, and similar facilities for the exportation and importation of petroleum." If the Secretary finds that granting a permit "would not serve the national interest," she can deny it.

Martin Wolf has a bit of an odd column today.  His basic point is that financial bubbles are generally caused by too much borrowed money:

At the heart of the financial industry are highly leveraged businesses....In a highly leveraged limited liability business, shareholders will rationally take excessive risks, since they enjoy all the upside but their downside is capped: they cannot lose more than their equity stake, however much the bank loses. In contemporary banks, leverage of 30 to one is normal. Higher leverage is not rare.

....A solution seems evident: let creditors lose. Rational creditors would then charge a premium for lending to higher-risk operations, leading to lower levels of leverage. One objection is that creditors may be ill-informed about the risks being run by banks they are lending to. But there is a more forceful objection: many creditors are protected by insurance backed by governments. Such insurance is motivated by the importance of financial institutions as sources of credit, on the asset side, and suppliers of money, on the liability side. As a result, creditors have little interest in the quality of a bank’s assets or in its strategy. They appear to have lent to a bank. In reality, they have lent to the state.

So far, so good. Even rational managers and shareholders have a big incentive to take outsize advantage of cheap money if it produces many years of great returns and only occasional big losses.  Ditto for lenders — especially if, in the case of catastrophe, they can expect to be protected by central bank guarantees of various sorts.  But then the column ends with this:

The unpleasant truth is that, today, the incentive to behave in this risky way is, if anything, even bigger than it was before the crisis. [Yikes! –ed.]

Regulatory reform cannot end with incentives. But it has to start from incentives. A business that is too big to fail cannot be run in the interests of shareholders, since it is no longer part of the market. Either it must be possible to close it down or it has to be run in a different way. It is as simple — and brutal — as that.

Wolf's focus on abuse of leverage is right on target, as is his observation that regulation by itself isn't enough to stop it.  Regulators will inevitably become captured, banks will figure out ways to get around them, and politicians will do nothing to stop it since that would run the risk of hurting the economy with an election coming up.  (And there's always an election coming up.)

So what's the answer?  The academic paper that inspired the column suggests that reforming executive compensation in the financial sector is part of the answer, but Wolf himself doesn't really follow that up.  So we're not left with much.  Saying that big banks "cannot be run in the interests of shareholders" is a provocative statement, but following that up by suggesting only that they need to be "run in a different way" isn't a very provocative response.  Perhaps this column was a season finale cliffhanger and we have to wait until next week for the mind blowing conclusion?

On Friday, May 15, I attended the confirmation hearing for Robert M. Groves, Obama's designee to become the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau. Groves, formerly an academic from the University of Michigan, has dedicated his life to census-related matters. A total of three senators attended his hearing, including Susan Collins, the lone GOP representative. Without objections, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs unanimously approved Groves' nomination by voice vote five days later. However, Groves's confirmation by the full Senate has been stalled by at least one anonymous Republican senator. Under Senate rules, a Senator can hold up a nomination without going public or providing an explanation.

It has now been 40 days since Groves's nomination hearing. One reason for the anonymous hold may be Groves's support for statistical sampling. This practice is controversial because it involves using expert opinions to calculate the accuracy of figures rather than relying solely on a door-to-door headcount. As Time reported, when Groves was "an associate census director in the 1990s, [he] angered Republicans by supporting a statistical adjustment to compensate for the 1990 undercount."

However, sampling should be a nonissue because the method was banned for decennial headcounts by the United States Supreme Court, and Groves has sworn not to use it for the 2010 Census.

In addition to Groves, 61 other Obama nominees remain unconfirmed. (Also, Obama has yet to fill 210 open positions.) The longer these positions sit vacant, the greater the chance that bureaucratic errors will be made due to a lack of leadership.

And no place is more prone to bureaucratic error than the Census Bureau.

A UH-60 Black Hawk from Task Force 34, 1st Battalion 244th Assault Helicopter Battalion flies over a mosque during a routine flight on Feb. 27. (Photo courtesy army.mil).

Quote of the Day

From Barack Obama, asked why he won't spell out the consequences of further violence in Iran right now:

"I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. OK?"

Good for him.  Obama was noticeably tougher toward the Iranian regime in his press conference today ("The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days"), but he remained firm in his refusal to say anything that would allow the regime to pretend that the protesters are in any way tools of Western powers:

The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in Iran — some in the Iranian government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the elections.

These accusations are patently false. They're an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran's borders.

This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they — and only they — will choose.

This is obviously becoming a harder line to walk as events progress in Iran, and I expect it to become harder still over the next few days.  So far, though, Obama has done pretty well.

Three MoJo stories we're liking today:

1) Shock and Audit: The Hidden Defense Budget

Mother Jones dissected the defense budget so you don't have to. You thought $600 toilet seats were bad? Here's how the Pentagon really spends money. Read more.

2) China Corners the Keffiyeh Market

How did a pro-Palestine American hipster trend force the last Palestinian keffiyeh maker to shutter his business? Read more.

3) 98% of Eco Products Not Eco

A study of 4,000 "eco-friendly" consumer products found rampant greenwashing among almost all of them. Will Congress clamp down on misleading claims? Read more.

Plus: Check out the comments on Kevin's "Obama Derangement Syndrome Watch" post.

The International Whaling Commmission is meeting in Portugal this week, which is appropriate as it looks like this year Europe may kill more whales than Japan.

In a related note, it looks like that in at least one small Japanese fishing town, the local Buddhist priest is keeping track of the whales killed by locals. Upon death, the whales are given a Buddhist name that is entered into an official death register, much like a human's would be. The town has been recording the whales' deaths for 320 years. There's even a grave (complete with headstone and flowers) for the fetuses of whales found in their mother's bodies. I'm not at all in favor of whaling, but I suppose if you're going to do it, it's nice to at least commemorate the animals' deaths. Although one could argue, if you really respect the animal, you wouldn't kill it in the first place.

Obama the Cheerleader

Tyler Cowen provides us with a Three Word Explanation:

Median voter theorem.

It's my first-cut account of a lot of what is going on in the newspaper headlines.  Yet somehow I rarely see it mentioned, even when I read very prominent social scientists commenting on current policy.

By this, I assume Tyler is suggesting that the reason big-ticket programs like national healthcare and climate change legislation have bogged down lately is because the median voter hasn't changed much over the past few years.  Congress and the presidency may have changed hands, but public opinion has shifted only slightly, and that means there's not really a very big appetite for dramatic change.

Barack Obama, of course, is the guy who has the job of changing this.  But can he?  Here's something written about Obama before last November's election:

Watching him in action for the past year, one thing has become more and more clear: He doesn't seem inclined to use his oratorical skill to truly shape public opinion. He's only using it to win votes.

....It's not clear yet if he gets this. His speeches soar, but they rarely seem designed to move the nation in a specific direction. Is he pushing the public to support cap and trade even though it might cost them a few dollars? Or merely to vote for "change"? It's sometimes hard to tell.

This is hardly an original concern. Liberal pundits have been stewing for months over the question of whether Obama is too cautious to win big victories, too invested in a narrative of bipartisan unity to get his hands dirty in a real street fight. As a former community organizer he understands the power of direct action, but does he understand how to shift public opinion on a national scale? And is he willing to try?

That was me back in October.  I'm still wondering. It's not so much that I think Obama has to abandon his bipartisan approach and approach politics as an endless blood sport, but that he needs to engage with the public much more sharply than he has until now.  When he talks, people listen, but I don't get the sense that they light up congressional switchboards the next day. One of these days, they need to start.