Below is a guest blog entry by MoJo author Maia Szalavitz:

The "drug czar" position has never worked as intended. Originally proposed as a cabinet-level coordinator of drug policy by Joe Biden in the early 80's, it was a knee-jerk response to growing hysteria over widespread cocaine use. Ronald Reagan initially vetoed the idea as more bureaucracy, but eventually got on board, signing the relevant legislation in 1988.

The post's creation was part of a package of harmful laws that included the death penalty for "drug kingpins" and the notorious mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine that helped make an already racially-biased drug policy (.pdf) into a situation where one in ten young African American men are in prison.

Ever since, the job has been held by political operatives (William Bennett), police officers (Lee Brown) and generals (Barry McCaffrey). Never once has an academic drug policy expert, an MD, PhD, or other addiction researcher who has actually studied the subject served as drug czar. Will that change under Obama?

Leverage

LEVERAGE....Matt Yglesias approvingly notes something that Hank Paulson said today:

We need to get to the place in this country where no institution is too big or too interconnected to fail.

Hmmm. Is this even possible? Trying to regulate leverage is hard enough, but trying to directly regulate size and "interconnectedness"? Do we really want to do that?

Take AIG, for example. Was the problem that AIG was too big? Not really. The vast bulk of its business, after all, was in ordinary state-regulated insurance lines that weren't causing any problems. Their famous CDS losses were concentrated exclusively in the AIG Financial Products division in London, which employed a grand total of 377 people. The problem wasn't so much that AIG itself was too big, but that they allowed a small division to run amok.

(It's true that there's an indirect sense in which AIG's size allowed them to get into so much trouble: namely that CDS buyers trusted AIG's AAA rating so much that they didn't require them to post collateral. But that's pretty indirect.)

Beyond that, there's another problem: the world needs big banks. Large multinational corporations just aren't going to do their banking at a small community credit union, after all. They want to deal with a big money center bank that has plenty of lending capacity, expertise in a wide variety of areas, and branches around the world. You just won't find that in a small bank.

And then there's the interconnectedness problem. Bear Stearns wasn't really all that big (a fraction the size of Citibank, for example), but the Fed rescued them because they were afraid of cascading counterparty risk if they failed. Later they let Lehman Brothers fail, and they discovered that their fears were well founded. But how do you regulate that?

The modern world is a big place, and there's no way to turn back the clock. Big corporations and big banks are here to stay, whether we like it or not. Frankly, Paulson sounds to me like he's trying to mouth some feel-good words that he knows will never be taken seriously but make him look like he's getting tough on Wall Street. I'm not buying it. For my money, I keep coming back to the same thing: leverage, leverage, leverage. The key is to regulate leverage to reasonable levels and to regulate it everywhere. If it walks like a bank and quacks like a bank, then it's a bank and its leverage ratios should be regulated. That's what will keep banks from being too big to fail in the future, and this time around we shouldn't allow Congress or the SEC to toss off a few bland platitudes and then do nothing serious about it. Leverage is where the action is.

MilkResized.jpg

Harvey Milk, the San Francisco board of supervisors member who was assassinated in 1978, never considered himself to be a local anything. Milk, who was born in New York and has a high school in Manhattan named for him, also lived in California, Florida, and Texas during his life. He held office in San Francisco for a mere 11 months, but he had dreams of becoming a mayor, a congressman, and after that, who knew? So it seems incongruous that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would decline to commemorate Harvey Milk's birthday by deeming the first openly gay man in the nation to hold public office a "local" figure.

The Milk bill, sponsored by California assemblyman Mark Leno, sought to make Milk's birthday (May 22) a statewide "day of significance." The bill itself is fairly low-impact: schools and government institutions would remain open for regular business. The bill would only "encourage" educational institutions to "conduct suitable commemorative exercises on that date." In September, Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill saying that Milk's "contributions should continue to be recognized at the local level."

Last week Gus Van Sant's film about Milk opened as a limited release. At the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the line to enter the movie stretched for almost two blocks. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the movie earned a record-breaking $1.4 million in three-day box office, or $38,375 per location. The film's five-day Thanksgiving Weekend total gross was $1.9 million. Local level, indeed.

—Daniel Luzer

Image by flickr user Sam Spade

Today, the twentieth anniversary of World AIDS Day, George W. Bush received the first "International Medal of P.E.A.C.E." for his contribution to world peace via HIV/AIDS funding. Starting in 2003, Bush's President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) gave $15 billion to international programs to fight HIV/AIDS, but the programs were widely panned for their focus on abstinence-before-marriage and be-faithful-to-one-partner education. The medal was awarded by Pastor Rick Warren's new P.E.A.C.E. organization, which honors "ordinary people empowered by God."

According to a 2006 year-long study by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the ideological bent of PEPFAR made the programs ineffective in countries with high HIV rates like Uganda and South Africa. South Africa's HIV prevalence rate among adults has increased from 18.8% in 2005 to 25.5% today. And in Uganda, the infection rate nearly doubled between 2003, just after PEPFAR began implementing programs there, and 2005.

Conservative bloggers, who blamed the Virginia Tech victims for not fighting back against the madman who attacked their school, are back for a second dip in the blame-the-victim cesspool. Here's John Hinderaker:

I wondered earlier today how a mere ten terrorists could bring a city of 19 million to a standstill. Here in the U.S., I don't think it would happen. I think we have armed security guards who know how to use their weapons, supplemented by an unknown number of private citizens who are armed and capable of returning fire. The Indian experience shows it is vitally important that this continue to be the case. This is a matter of culture as much as, or more than, a matter of laws.

Adam Serwer of TAP explains this attitude thusly:

This is a really strange and immature coping mechanism that manifests on the right in times of high profile tragedy. Rather than contemplate being a victim of a terrorist attack, the subject imagines him or herself as the star of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. I'd say it's simple racism, but it really is fear masquerading as bravado, a cultural chauvinism that directs itself at other Americans as readily as it does at foreigners. It is the "short skirt" theory of violence. If it happened, you must have been asking for it.

Hm, yes. I have to say, I have never seen anyone who has actually faced combat criticize the inaction or ineffectualness of untrained, unarmed bystanders when in a life-or-death situations. (If this has happened somewhere, please feel free to correct me.) This thinking appears to be peculiar to a certain kind of conservative keyboard monkey who measures America's strength by the size of its military and considers himself (always a him) more patriotic than liberals because he is more likely to thank a veteran for his or her service, though he himself would never serve.

Thoughts on Milk

mojo-photo-milkcastro.jpgBraving the round-the-block lines at the Castro theater for an opening-weekend showing of Milk seemed like the right thing to do (see my cell-phone photo of post-screening mayhem at right), and the hour-long wait was made kind of enjoyable by the almost celebratory atmosphere of the crowd, which turned practically giddy once we filed in. Milk is a work of art, a reality-based fiction, but after a year of stumbling across the film crew all over town, and finally sitting in a theater across the street from Harvey Milk's old photo shop, one couldn't help but feel a sense of being a part of history. Milk is a good film, with very good performances, but its story and message are so pertinent today, I couldn't even try to remove that from my consideration of it as a movie. So, there are a few spoilers after the jump.

Barack Obama's national security team--at this early stage--presents more questions than answers. His selection of Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state has been a much-chewed-over topic of pundit puzzlement. And with the Monday morning unveiling of his senior defense and foreign policy aides, Obama made official another curious decision: his retention of Robert Gates as secretary of defense.

There's an obvious reason for Obama to keep Gates at the Pentagon. Having a George W. Bush appointee in charge will give Obama political cover as he proceeds with his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. But there are several potential problems with this move. I've consulted two former Pentagon officials--who are critics of standard operating procedure at the Pentagon--who decry this move. (Neither wanted to be quoted, for they might now or later be in contention for a job in the Obama administration.) "It's probably the dumbest thing Obama's done," one said.

They identified three possible pitfalls. First, Gates is a lame duck. There has been no indication how long he will stay in the Pentagon's top post, but it seems Gates will remain there on a quasi-temporary basis. Consequently, Pentagon bureaucrats who don't want to see their prerogatives challenged--if Gates wanted to do such a thing--could try to wait him out. Second, Gates is no agent of change when it comes to the Pentagon budget. In the Bush years, the regular military budget has increased by 40 percent in real terms (not counting so-called "emergency" supplemental spending bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)--partly because of hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns. During the campaign, Obama talked about the need to cut "billions of dollars in wasteful spending" from the military budget. But Gates has yet to demonstrate he is truly interested in reworking the Pentagon's out-of-control budget. Keeping Gates in place sends the signal that Obama, who faces a host of hard jobs, is not eager to take on the Pentagon at the start of his presidency. "There are so many problems at home," says one of the critics, "Obama may not want to do anything fundamental about the Pentagon."

Blowback

BLOWBACK....Juan Cole speculates about who was behind the Mumbai terrorist attacks:

When the Soviets withdrew in 1988-1989 from Afghanistan and the Mujahideen took over, the Pakistani military lost control of its northern neighbor. It therefore funded and promoted the Taliban (expatriate Afghan young men who had been through Deobandi seminaries in northern Pakistan) from 1994, enabling them to take over Afghanistan. The Taliban ran terrorist training camps, at which the Sipah-e Sahaba and the Lashkar-e Tayiba trained for missions in Kashmir.

....The cell that hit Mumbai was probably a rogue splinter group. They completely disregarded the old Lashkar-e Tayiba concentration on hitting only Indian troops in Kashmir, targeting civilians instead. It is very unlikely that anyone in the Pakistani military put them up specifically to this Mumbai operation. This attack was much more likely to be blowback, when a covert operation produces unexpected consequences or agents that were previously reliable go rogue.

....If the Pakistani government does not give up this covert terrorist campaign in Kashmir and does not stop coddling the radical vigilantes who go off to fight there, South Asian terrorism will grow as a problem and very possibly provoke the world's first nuclear war (possible death toll: 20 million).

Read the whole thing for more background and history.

Recession Dating

RECESSION DATING....Me, back in February:

When NBER eventually gets around to dating the 2008 recession, when will they decide it started? My money is on December 2007. And when will they date the end? I'd guess March 2009.

NBER, today:

The nation's economy peaked, and the recession began, in December 2007, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced today.

....The committee concluded that the start of the recession was December 2007 — due in large part, it said in a statement, to the decline in jobs that began that month. But it noted that many other data points confirm the diagnosis.

"The committee determined that the decline in economic activity in 2008 met the standard for a recession," the group said in its statement. "Evidence other than the ambiguous movements of the quarterly product-side measure of domestic production confirmed that conclusion. Many of these indicators, including monthly data on the largest component of GDP, consumption, have declined sharply in recent months."

Advantage: blogosphere!

Afghanistan

AFGHANISTAN....Nir Rosen is not optimistic about Afghanistan's future:

There are too many symptoms of Afghanistan's decline to inventory, but the roads are an easy place to start, a clear sign of the shrinking zone of order that now barely reaches beyond the outskirts of Kabul.

....In Kabul I met with western diplomats, security experts, former Mujahideen commanders, former Taliban officials, NGO representatives, and senior officials at the UN; many of the westerners have been in the country since the US invasion, some for more than a decade. They are committed, in various ways, to supporting the government led by Hamid Karzai, the efforts at development and reconstruction, and the coalition campaign against the resurgent Taliban — and none would speak candidly without remaining anonymous, since their private assessments are, to a person, "incredibly bleak," as one said.

....As I saw on the road to Ghazni, the Taliban have succeeded in essentially cutting off Kabul from the rest of the country. The road southwest to Kandahar was lethal. "The Kabul to Ghazni road is gone," a British intelligence officer told me, "the Ghazni to Gardez road is exceedingly bad, the Wardak road is sh***, the Jalalabad road is sliding. The ambushes have become routine."

Via Andrew Sullivan.