Kevin Drum - November 2008

Advice for Pinch

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 2:02 PM EST

ADVICE FOR PINCH....George Packer says the New York Times should fire Bill Kristol when his one-year probationary period is up in December:

In his year on the Op-Ed page, not one memorable sentence, not one provocative thought, not one valuable piece of information appeared under his name.....Kristol's performance on the Op-Ed page during the most interesting election in a generation is a historical symptom, not merely a personal failure. He wrote badly because his world view had become problematic at best, untenable at worst, and he had spent too many years turning out Party propaganda to summon the intellectual resources that a difficult situation required. Now the Times owes it to its readers to find someone better.

After a couple of months I stopped reading Kristol's columns. It wasn't because I disagreed with him, it was because he was boring. Whatever the meme of the week was in the few days prior to his Monday appearance, you could be almost sure that's what he'd write about. Not only were his subjects often stale by then, but he almost never offered anything more than the tritest conservative conventional wisdom on the subject at hand. Snooze city.

So: who should take his place? Since this is a liberal site, and the Times is looking for a conservative columnist, the answer is probably going to be whoever infuriates you the most reliably. (Kristol didn't. He just put me to sleep.) Consider this an open thread.

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Holy Joe Update

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 1:05 PM EST

HOLY JOE UPDATE....I see that Senate Democrats have voted to allow Joe Lieberman to keep his committee chairmanship. I guess they really showed him, didn't they? No Democrat will ever dare to support a Republican candidate for president, speak at the Republican national convention in prime time, and bad mouth the Democratic Party's candidate ever again.

Clintonites

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 1:03 PM EST

CLINTONITES....Just a quick comment on a common meme: Why is Barack Obama surrounding himself with so many Clinton retreads? That's not change we can believe in!

Sure, sure, but look: anybody who's been active in liberal governance for more than eight years is likely to be a Clintonite. It was the only game in town during the 90s. And anybody who's been active less than eight years probably doesn't have the experience to get a top level position. So there's really no way around this. There are some fresh faces around for Obama to tap, but for the most part, when you're staffing highly visible and responsible positions, you want someone who has at least some experience to fall back on. And since Bill Clinton is the only Democrat to hold the presidency in the past 28 years, that means someone who served in the Clinton administration.

I suppose this doesn't bother me as much as it does some people since I never expected Obama to be a huge left-wing break from Democratic tradition in the first place. He's a little farther to the left than Clinton, but not a lot, and it's only natural that he'd find a fair number of Clintonites who hold views similar to his own. What's more, as his campaign showed, he's obviously a guy who values experience and deep knowledge. He'll do fine, Clintonites or not.

Quote of the Day - 11.18.08

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 12:17 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From maritime energy security specialist Candyce Kelshall, responding to the unprecedented seizure of an oil tanker 450 miles off the coast of Somalia:

"If it was an LNG tanker seized, we're looking at something potentially catastrophic. An LNG tanker going up is like 50 Hiroshimas."

I just thought I'd start off the morning with a cheery thought. You may now go about your business.

From Kurdistan to K-Street

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 2:50 AM EST

FROM KURDISTAN TO K-STREET....Over on our home page today, Laura Rozen tells the story of Shlomi Michaels: former Israeli counterterrorism commando, owner of a coffee/chocolate shop franchise, lobbyist and contractor for Iraqi Kurds, and, it turns out, friend of intelligence service chiefs from Moscow to Tokyo to Washington DC. It is definitely not set in the foreign affairs world that we normally see on TV:

This is a story of the other world, the one whose real power players never show up in the CNN headline crawl. It's the story of a man with a habit of popping up, Zelig-like, at the nexus of foreign policy and the kinds of businesses that thrive in times of war — security contracting, infrastructure development and postwar reconstruction, influence and intelligence brokering.

It's also the story of how this entrepreneur and middleman, in the shadowy environment created by the 9/11 attacks and Washington's advance on Iraq, seized the opportunity to propel himself from small-time businessman into global player. The trajectory of Shlomi Michaels is testament not only to one man's driven intensity, but also to the opportunities the war on terror has presented to those with the information, connections, and ambition to seize them.

The eternal search for WMD programs in Iraq makes an appearance too. The whole story is here.

Conservatives and Unions

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 10:18 PM EST

CONSERVATIVES AND UNIONS....Tim Fernholz shakes his head over the current conservative obsession with supposed liberal efforts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, and then asks a question:

The problem, of course, is that most folks on the left could care less about the Fairness Doctrine and don't see bringing it back as necessary or important, as The Los Angeles Times chronicles. But, obviously, a good number of conservatives are worked up about this fake issue. Which is weird, but also got me to thinking: Are liberals worked up about a similarly fake conservative project?

Sure. A few years ago there was a boomlet in liberals claiming that Bush was going to reinstate the draft. It was always a ridiculous notion, but it had a certain amount of currency in the blogosphere for a while. I think I even succumbed to it once myself during the 2004 campaign season.

But what else? Fernholz decided to ask some conservatives, and James Poulos gave this answer:

I suppose I have a less controversial and a more controversial answer for you. The less controversial answer is that [it] doesn't seem right to me to claim that conservatives are out to destroy the unions....The more controversial answer is that I don't think "overturning Roe vs. Wade" really accurately describes "a conservative project" anymore.

I'd say this is exactly backward. Overturning Roe v. Wade is obviously still a conservative project, but I'd at least give a hearing to the argument that there are plenty of conservatives who (a) don't really care about Roe and (b) believe that overturning it is a hopeless cause. Sure, they're all willing to keep it in the GOP platform and support pro-life judges (as long as they're also pro-business judges), but you can certainly make the case that a serious obsession with Roe is a minority position even within the conservative movement.

So even though I'd still disagree with Poulos on this point, I'd call it the less controversial claim. Union busting, conversely, strikes me as being so deeply embedded in conservative DNA that it's virtually impossible to imagine an American conservative movement that didn't have anti-unionism as one of its core planks. In the last 30 years conservatives have made virtually no only modest inroads on their pro-life agenda, but they've made steady progress on the anti-union front ever since the end of World War II — via legislation, executive orders, new agency rules, NLRB appointments, and judicial nominations at both the state and federal level. This is no coincidence. The prospect of unionization rouses panic among Main Street conservatives more than any other single issue — more than taxes, more than deregulation — and whether James Dobson likes it or not, the GOP is a business party first and a social conservative party second.

Overturning Roe is certainly a conservative priority, but it's only been on the list for about 30 years. Fighting labor has been on the list for more like 130 years. If it's not central to the conservative identity in America, I don't know what is.

UPDATE: Edited slightly. As JR points out in comments, in conservative regions of the country pro-life forces have won a fair number of battles at the state and local level.

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Hillary at State

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 8:06 PM EST

HILLARY AT STATE....The latest on the Hillary front:

Hillary Clinton plans to accept the job of secretary of state offered by Barack Obama, who is reaching out to former rivals to build a broad coalition administration, the Guardian has learned.

....Clinton, who still harbours hopes of a future presidential run, had to weigh up whether she would be better placed by staying in the Senate, which offers a platform for life, or making the more uncertain career move to the secretary of state job.

I don't know what sources the Guardian bases this on, but there are no weasel words in that first sentence. If this really turns out to be true, color me gobsmacked.

Iranian Arms Update

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 3:36 PM EST

IRANIAN ARMS UPDATE....Gareth Porter reports on the findings of Task Force Troy, which was set up earlier this year to look for evidence of Iranian-made weapons in Iraq:

According to the data compiled by the task force, and made available to an academic research project last July, only 70 weapons believed to have been manufactured in Iran had been found in post-invasion weapons caches between mid-February and the second week in April. And those weapons represented only 17 percent of the weapons found in caches that had any Iranian weapons in them during that period.

....The caches that included Iranian weapons [] represented just 2 percent of all caches found. That means Iranian-made weapons were a fraction of one percent of the total weapons found in Shi'a militia caches during that period.

To be exact, Iranian weapons accounted for 0.36% of all weapons found during the six-week period examined by the task force. What's more, the task force also looked at large caches of supposedly Iranian weapons uncovered in Basra and Karbala during April and May and concluded that they weren't Iranian after all. Cernig provides more:

Left out of the list of Iranian-made weaponry were 350 armour-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) found in Iraqi weapons caches. Despite the lurid claims of US officials, the task group couldn't ascribe an Iranian origin to a single one. Which along with press reports about finding EFP manufactories inside Iraq explains why, since mid-Summer, we've heard nothing about Iranian-made EFPs whereas before official reports and statements were full of them.

....Iranian equipment is less reliable and more expensive than Eastern Block materiel that flooded the region after the 2003 invasion — something which a certain imprisoned international arms dealer, ex-CIA and ex-US military contractor and supplier to despots and terrorists, Viktor Bout, may well know a fair bit about. It's a buyer's market and the Iranians are seeing market forces exclude their produce, with the exception of simple artillery rockets. They're more expensive than the Pakistani arms bazaar's copies coming down the old Silk Road routes and far less effective than easily available and comparitively-priced black market US weapons too.

There's no question that Iran has substantial interests, both political and military, in Iraq, and has been assisting various armed groups there over the past few years (some of them allied with Maliki and the U.S. government). But evidence is evidence, and the evidence that they've been providing anything more than token amounts of weaponry to Iraqi fighters is very thin indeed. It's time to move on to some other bugaboo.

Stimulus Dreams

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 2:17 PM EST

STIMULUS DREAMS....Clay Risen recommends a piece in New York magazine about the virtues of using a trillion-dollar infrastructure program as economic stimulus. It's by architecture critic Justin Davidson, and it argues that a building plan would do more than just stimulate the economy:

A new New Deal, equipped with an Obama-era version of the Works Progress Administration, could put millions back to work, modernize the country, nudge the economy towards recovery, and produce a barrage of working monuments. It would be a stimulus package that keeps on stimulating long into the future.

This late-model WPA would take advantage of a moment when great architecture, buoyed by a long construction boom and debilitated by the bubble's pop, is looking for a purpose. The international corps of architectural auteurs, who have spent a decade or two dreaming up fantastical museums and ever more luxurious condos, could be challenged to build in American cities — particularly ours — on the grandest possible scale. They should be given the chance to tackle society's most massive, crucial, and abiding projects: viaducts, junctions, sewage plants, power plants, and bridges.

I have my doubts about this. In the first half of the 20th century, huge engineering projects were viewed as symbols of economic power and national greatness. Each skyscraper was taller than the one before, each bridge longer, each highway more miraculous. But here in the industrialized West anyway, that's just not true anymore. We've done too much of it, and it's become too routine. Individual pieces of architecture still have the power to inspire, but building programs qua building programs just don't kindle the same passions they used to.

This is especially true given the nature of the stuff we'd be building (or repairing): "viaducts, junctions, sewage plants, power plants, and bridges." There would probably be a few chances to build beautiful new bridges — Davidson mentions the new Tappan Zee bridge as an example — but they're going to be few and far between. For the most part, we've already built all the big bridges we need, and the vast bulk of any federal building program will instead be on inherently prosaic projects. Even on the bridge front, most of the projects will be straightforward roads, like the infamous I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, not gossamer creations spanning rivers and mountain gorges.

Which is too bad. I love beautiful bridges, and if we do allocate money for infrastructure, I hope we allow it to be used to create works of art when and where it's possible. For the most part, though, we don't need grand new projects so much as we need to repair old ones — and the new ones we do need are going to be things like windmill farms, electricals grids, and rail systems. It'll stimulate the economy, and be an excellent investment in the future, but it's asking too much to think it will be much more than that.

Movement Drivel

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 1:36 PM EST

MOVEMENT DRIVEL....After listening to George Will this weekend, Brad DeLong is confused:

I have never been able to make any sense at all of the right-wing claim that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by creating a "crisis of confidence" that crippled private investment as American businessmen feared and hated "that Communist Roosevelt." The crisis of confidence was created by the stock market crash, the deflation, and the bank failures of 1929-1933. Private investment recovered in a very healthy fashion as Roosevelt's New Deal policies took effect.

There's a good reason Brad has never been able to make sense of this claim: it was never made in good faith in the first place. Movement conservatives don't like the New Deal, so they did what they always do when confronted with something they don't like: they went searching for some content-free but semi-plausible argument against it that they could use to con the rubes. Then, once they found something glib enough to pass muster, they repeated it often enough that it took on the patina of conventional wisdom. Conventional enough even for the likes of George Will.

For the first time in a while, though, liberals have the luxury of mostly ignoring this nonsense. In this case — George Will spouting economic drivel on ABC's This Week — Paul Krugman batted down the nonsense in the course of a few seconds and the conversation moved on. End of story. Very refreshing.

So today's moral is: make an argument in good faith, and it will (or should, anyway) be engaged. Spew movement nonsense and you will be quickly corrected and then ignored. It's a good system.