Yesterday two measures included in the slew of bills across the country that would require women to view an ultrasound before having an abortion were shot down in a Virginia Senate committee. One measure would have required women to look at an image of the fetus on the day of the abortion; the other would have forced doctors to offer to anesthetize the fetus.

In related abortion news, the North Dakota House gave fertilized human eggs the legal rights of human beings. The bill now goes to the Senate for review.

The Chicago Tea Party

I guess this is the rant of the day: Rick Santelli on CNBC calling for a "Chicago Tea Party" because Barack Obama has the temerity to want to help underwater homeowners.  Ezra Klein comments:

Santelli sells himself as a sort of financial sector Howard Beale: He's mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore. The financial industry is tired of having to clean up after someone else's mess!

....But watching the traders bray and cheer as Santelli calls for the streets to run green with the equity of the working class is an astonishing insight in the psychology of the crisis. These guys feel betrayed. America let them down!....They should lose their houses. Wall Street is tired of being ground under the thumb of the lower middle class. This country has coddled those losers long enough, and see where it's gotten us.

It's not fair to say that these folks only get upset when it's homeowners being bailed out.  After all, there's been plenty of righteous fury over the bank bailouts too.  But there's definitely a different sense to this: it's closer, more personal.  Wall Street being bailed out is one thing: it's infuriating, but in the end you just shrug your shoulders and figure this is the way the world works.  But homeowners?  Your neighbors?  The guy who installed fancy granite countertops and a new wet bar and then mocked you for carefully husbanding your money instead of living the good life?  He's going to get bailed out?  WTF?

This has always been the soft underbelly of bailing out homeowners.  It's a good idea both on broad economic grounds and on social justice grounds, but the fact is that there's no way to make it 100% fair.  There are going to be some people who get government help who don't deserve it.  And some of those people aren't going to be bankers a thousand miles away, they're going to be people you personally know and loathe.  And that's hard to take.

In the end, I think Santelli is channeling the reaction of a small minority.  Stabilizing the mortgage market and helping people in trouble is the right thing to do even if there's no way to get the focus laser perfect.  But watch out for the demagogues while you're doing it.

UPDATE: More here.

Liberals are worried that next Monday's "fiscal responsibility summit," hosted by the Obama Administration, will be two things they don't like: (1) yet another sop to conservatives, and (2) the beginning of a rightward shift on entitlement reform. Will the Obama team embrace the center-right consensus that Social Security is in crisis and that the only way to fix it is to cut benefits?

Ezra Klein argues that the Obama folks understand that Social Security has little bearing on America's long-term financial solvency, and that they will use the summit to make the case that health care reform is the way to ease our entitlement problems.

That, basically, has been Orszag's project: Talk a lot about the health care crisis and longer-term problems in the budget and get people to stop talking about an illusory crisis in a made-up program called socialsecurityandmedicareandmedicaid. Because what Orszag and Krugman both realize is that Social Security's unfunded liabilities only look like the sort of problem you need to "fix" if you're mixing it in with Medicare's unfunded liabilities. If there's an "entitlements problem" that requires an "entitlements commission" then that will cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. If there's no "entitlements problem" and instead a health reform problem and some small questions about a politically electric program, then what you get is health reform -- which is also a way to slow Medicaid and Medicare growth without resorting to cuts -- and an end to the fear-mongering on Social Security.

Let's hope the Obama team is this savvy. It would be pretty remarkable if they can channel the Social-Security-is-a-crisis! hysteria and turn it into even more energy behind the cause of universal health care.

John Pfaff had an article in Slate yesterday that takes on "five myths" about prison reform.  I don't have much to say about the article in general, but it did have one very interesting factlet about America's sky-high incarceration rate:

More strikingly, if we look back historically at the lockup rate for mental hospitals as well as prisons, we have only just now returned to the combined rates for both kinds of incarceration in the 1950s. In other words, we're not locking up a greater percentage of the population so much as locking people up in prisons rather than mental hospitals.

This comes from a paper written a couple of years ago by Bernard Harcourt, who says that it's only half true to say that American incarceration rates skyrocketed starting in the 70s.  What really happened, he says, is that we've had high incarceration rates for most of the 20th century, but it was originally split between a small number of people in prisons and a much larger number of people in mental institutions.  In the 60s we suddenly emptied the mental hospitals, crime soared, and then in the 70s we started putting more people in prison.  The end result is an inversion: the incarceration rate today is about the same as it was in the 50s, but we have a small number of people in mental hospitals and much larger number of people in prison.

Harcourt discussed these findings in a series of posts at the Volokh Conspiracy back in 2007, making the point that social science research that focuses strictly on the prison population might be missing the larger picture: "Since practically none of our studies on prisons, guns, abortion, education, unemployment, capital punishment, etc., controls for institutionalization writ large, most of what we claim to know about these effects may be on shaky ground."

If you're interested in this kind of thing, the whole discussion is worth reading.  I don't have the background to endorse Harcourt's findings one way or the other, but the raw data is pretty interesting.  It's worth a look.

UPDATE: Crime and punishment expert Mark Kleiman responds here.  He says there's much less to this than meets the eye, and adds, via email: "The explosion of drive-by shootings 1985-1994 simply can't be blamed on de-institutionalization.  More generally, adult homicide has been falling since the early 1970s; it's youth homicide that surged and receded."

Taxing Drivers

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants to tax the number of miles you drive, not the amount of gasoline you buy:

"We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled," the former Illinois Republican lawmaker said.

...."What I see this administration doing is this — thinking outside the box on how we fund our infrastructure in America," he said.

I'm with Atrios on this: it's a dumb idea.  There's a place for London-style congestion charges in crowded urban cores, but outside of that a gas tax and a VMT tax are practically the same thing.  The only real difference is that a VMT tax isn't remotely feasible, and won't be for years, while we could raise the gas tax right now if we wanted to.  So jabbering about a VMT tax is basically just a good way to avoid taking any serious action to reduce gasoline consumption.

What's more, in some ways a gasoline tax is better than a VMT tax anyway.  A VMT tax motivates you to drive less, which is great, but it doesn't motivate you to go out and buy a fuel-efficient car.  A gas tax does both.  It's true that as cars become more fuel efficient — and as electric cars displace gasoline cars — the revenue from a gas tax will go down, but there's an easy fix for that: raise the tax. That accomplishes the same revenue smoothing as a VMT tax, and does it with no muss and no fuss.

Eventually, electric cars will become widespread enough that we'll need to figure out how to make them pay for using the roads even though they don't pay any gas taxes.  Maybe the answer will be VMT, maybe it will be something else.  But that's years away.  So study away, but in the meantime if you're serious about changing driving habits, raising the gas tax is the only serious alternative.

NAFTA Posturing

My overall sense is that Barack Obama is better than most politicians at saying what he really believes and avoiding outright pandering to vote-rich interest groups.  But everyone has his limits, and I never for a second believed he was serious when he ripped into NAFTA before union audiences during the Ohio primary.  And he wasn't:

President Obama warned on Thursday against a "strong impulse" toward protectionism while the world suffers a global economic recession and said his election-year promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement on behalf of unions and environmentalists will have to wait.

....The president's message served as a reminder of last year's private assessment by Canadian officials that then-candidate Obama's frequent criticism of NAFTA was nothing more than campaign speeches aimed at chasing support among Rust Belt union workers.

"Much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy," the Canadians concluded in a memo after meeting with Austan Goolsbee, a senior campaign aide and now a member of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.

Obama is fundamenally a liberal technocrat.  His biggest sin was never a lack of support for open trade, but simply the fact that faced with a close primary in a big state, he succumbed to demagogery — which just goes to show that even the king of "no drama" has his limits when the presidency of the United States is on the line.

Still, no harm, no foul.  The only person who was hurt by this was Hillary Clinton, who spent the Ohio primary bashing NAFTA just as loudly — and just as insincerely — as Obama.  If there's anyone out there who believes she meant what she said about NAFTA any more than Obama did, let me know.  I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you with some nice option ARM financing......

We knew there would repercussions for the GOP's decision to vote against the stimulus bill en masse (provided that the economy improves), but I definitely didn't think it would be this quick. A Republican congressman in Louisiana's 2nd district, which is reliably Democratic, is facing a recall petition because of his No vote.

The kicker? The congressman is Anh "Joseph" Cao, one of a very small group of minority lawmakers in the GOP and a man who's victory in a special election caused House Minority Leader John Boehner to crow "The Future is Cao."

Cao originally promised to vote for the stimulus bill, saying, "I'm voting along what my conscience dictates and the needs of the 2nd Congressional District dictate, even if I were to be the only member of the GOP to vote for the stimulus package." He was goaded into changing his vote by the Republican leadership. Now his failure of conscience may cost him.

Update: Some interesting numbers, in light of this topic: "The [approval rating] for Congressional Democrats is at 49%-45%, while Republicans are at 33%-59%.... Only 30% say Obama hasn't done enough to cooperate with Republicans in Congress -- the GOP base vote, basically -- while 62% say he's doing the right amount and 6% say it's been too much. Flipping it around, only 27% say Republicans have done enough to cooperate with Obama."

Nuclear Iran?

The bad news: inspectors have discovered that Iran has more enriched uranium at their facility in Natanz than they thought.  The good news: they haven't enriched it to weapons grade yet, and apparently don't have immediate plans to do so:

In a report issued in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had discovered an additional 460 pounds of low-enriched uranium, a third more than Iran had previously disclosed. The agency made the find during its annual physical inventory of nuclear materials at Iran’s sprawling desert enrichment plant at Natanz.

....“You have enough atoms” to make a nuclear bomb, a senior United Nations official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s diplomatic sensitivity, told reporters on Thursday. His remarks confirmed estimates that private nuclear analysts made late last year. But the official noted that the material would have to undergo further enrichment if it was to be used as fuel for a bomb and that atomic inspectors had found no signs that Iran was making such preparations.

....In Paris earlier this week, the head of the United Nations nuclear agency, Mohammad ElBaradei, said Iran appeared to have made “a political decision” to do less enrichment than it physically could.

David Albright's assessment is bleak: "They have reached a nuclear weapons breakout capability. You can dance about it, but they would have enough to make 20-25 kg of weapons-grade HEU."  And this: "If they break out they will do it at a clandestine facility, not at Natanz, so you can't use Natanz as a measure of how fast they could do it. The Iranians have stopped telling the IAEA about the production of centrifuges...so the agency doesn't know how many they are making."

The foreign policy challenges for the Obama administration just keep barrelling along, don't they?

The New York Post has posted an apology for the Sean Delonas cartoon picturing a chimpanzee being shot for writing a sloppy economic stimulus bill. The Post's editorial said that the cartoon was meant to "mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill," but that it seemed to have unintended consequences:

[The cartoon] has been taken as something else - as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize. However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past - and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback. To them, no apology is due.

Cute—anyone who's ever disagreed with the Post doesn't get to accept the apology! Dammit!

The cartoon generated significant controversy, and here on the Riff, Daniel Luzer's defense of it as "just a joke about monkeys" was picked up by Gawker, who pointed out that even "lefty magazine writers" didn't think it was racist. Well, in this humble MoJo contributor with a terrible DJ name's opinion, the cartoon probably wasn't intentionally racist, but it sure turned out that way: using a singular chimp to represent plural stimulus bill authors was sloppy symbolism, at best, and with the president taking ownership of the bill, it's only natural readers took it as a knock on Obama. Gawker, bless their hearts, also pointed out that Delonas has a long tradition of terrible, unfunny, and offensive drawings: a "rich history" of "hate," in fact, including such hilarious pieces as the good old "gay marriage leads to sheep marriage" classic, and the brilliant observation that big-nosed Muslim terrorists were really stoked about Democratic wins in the 2006 elections. Comic genius!

More than anything, what strikes me about Delonas' cartoons is their profound ugliness: they're scratchy, jerky, and overworked; people are spotty, leering and malformed; and his all-caps lettering leans and swerves like a '60s Fillmore poster. Even The Onion's great editorial cartoon parodies, with their layers of hilariously inconsistent visual metaphors, are straightforward in comparison. It's clear Delonas is sick enough to revel in the attention his pathetic scribblings have inspired; let's hope the Post is able to see the controversy for what it is: an outcry at awful work.

A few days ago Dianne Feinstein got into a little bit of trouble for admitting in public that the U.S. drones used to attack terrorist bases in Pakistan are launched from within Pakistan itself.  Since the Pakistani government officially opposes the American attacks, they were none too happy about this — and Feinstein later backtracked, saying that she was just repeating something that had been previously reported in the Washington Post.

The News, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan, decided to dig up the truth, so they went to the best source they could find: Google Earth.

Two pictures of an unidentified flying strip in Balochistan — bearing the coordinates 27 degrees 51 minutes North, 65 degrees and 10 minutes East — prove that Pakistani ground was being used, at least until 2006.

Both the pictures are still available on Google Earth, which maps every corner of the world through a satellite and internet users can zoom in to see every detail, even cars parked in front of their drive ways....The first picture of the drones on the Pakistani soil, taken in 2006, has three drones, all Global Hawks.

Later, the London Times got into the act and identified the location as Shamsi airfield.  They also reported that the drones weren't Global Hawk reconnaissance craft at all.  Most likely they're Predators armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles:

The Google Earth image now suggests that the US began launching Predators from Shamsi — built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips — at least three years ago

....Damian Kemp, an aviation editor with Jane's Defence Weekly, said that the three drones in the image appeared to have wingspans of 48-50ft. “The wingspan of an MQ1 Predator A model is 55ft. On this basis it is possible that these are Predator-As,” he said. “They are certainly not RQ-4A Global Hawks (which have a wingspan of 116ft 2in).”

As you can see, the drones were kept outdoors in 2006, but now appear to be stored inside the newly built hangar shown in the bottom right of the 2009 photo.  So that's that: it turns out that drones are being launched from Pakistan, just like Feinstein said.  And our deepest military secrets?  They're nothing compared to the power of Teh Google.  You have been warned.