Kevin Drum - January 2009

Showing Who's Boss

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 11:19 AM EST

SHOWING WHO'S BOSS....Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explains how he gets things done when the U.S. State Department is pushing to vote for a UN resolution he opposes:

"I said, 'Get me President Bush on the phone,' " Mr. Olmert said in a speech in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, according to The Associated Press. "They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care: 'I need to talk to him now,' " Mr. Olmert continued. "He got off the podium and spoke to me."

....Mr. Olmert claimed that once he made his case to Mr. Bush, the president called [Condoleezza] Rice and told her to abstain. "She was left pretty embarrassed," Mr. Olmert said, according to The A.P.

There are, of course, many things you could say about this. But the question that most piques my curiosity is: Why? Why would Olmert tell this story? Sure, he's bragging for a local audience, but what's the point? It's not as if he's running for anything these days. And he has to know that a story like this will embarrass the American government on a whole bunch of different levels. So why do it? Is he an idiot? Does he just not care anymore? What's the deal?

UPDATE: The most obvious comment about Olmert's story, of course, is this one:

"This is terrible for the United States," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. "This confirms every assumption they have in the Arab world about the tail wagging the dog. . . . It's a story you're likely to hear quoted there for years to come."

I'd say that's a pretty fair guess. Thanks a lot, Mr. Prime Minister.

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Guantanamo Update

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 1:45 AM EST

GUANTÁNAMO UPDATE....The latest on Guantánamo:

President-elect Barack Obama plans to issue an executive order on his first full day in office directing the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, people briefed by Obama transition officials said Monday.

But experts say it is likely to take many months, perhaps as long as a year, to empty the prison that has drawn international criticism since it received its first prisoners seven years ago this week. One transition official said the new administration expected that it would take several months to transfer some of the remaining 248 prisoners to other countries, decide how to try suspects and deal with the many other legal challenges posed by closing the camp.

This doesn't surprise me in either respect. That is, it doesn't surprise me that Obama plans to issue the order immediately, and it also doesn't surprise me that he thinks it will take upwards of a year to actually complete the shutdown. It will.

So far, Obama has been as good as his word on a wide variety of subjects, which means he deserves the benefit of the doubt here. Figuring out what to do with detainees at Guantanamo really is a tough problem, and suggesting that it will take several months to resolve is just a recognition of reality. Still, we'd all like something a little better than "trust us," and Hilzoy suggests a couple of things that would help:

Luckily, the Obama administration can help us out here, by doing a couple of things that would clearly demonstrate good faith, and that the administration could do by fiat. First, it could suspend ongoing trials under the existing system of military commissions. That system is a joke. There is no reason to go on using it.

Second, it could accept the Uighurs into the United States. The Uighur detainees at Guantanamo have been found not to be enemy combatants. They have never taken up arms against the United States. The Uighur community in DC is prepared to help them out, as are religious communities in DC and Tallahassee. A judge has ordered them to be released into this country. There is no earthly reason not to do so; after holding them for seven years, it's the least we can do.

Last month the Washington Post reported that several European countries have quietly made it known that once Obama takes office they're willing to consider resettling some of the Guantanamo detainees who can't be returned to their home countries. But one thing they want first is for the United States to take at least a few of the refugees itself as a show of goodwill that will help them sell the program to their own citizens. Apparently, though, the Bush White House has resisted the idea:

In interagency discussions, the State Department has argued that the Uighurs be brought to the United States to help persuade Europe to resettle other detainees. But a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the departments of Homeland Security and Justice, as well as White House officials, considered resettlement in the United States a "red-line" issue.

Hopefully Obama can remove this red line, resettle the Uighurs, and get this program going.

Analogies

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 6:56 PM EST

ANALOGIES....Matt Yglesias warns us about the use of analogies, especially historical analogies:

I did a post the other day that used an anecdote from my real life to illustrate a point about the concept of self-defense. Since the point was relevant to the debate over the fighting in Gaza, I tried to explicitly say that I didn't want the story to be read as an analogy since I don't believe in trying to conduct arguments by analogy. Well along comes Michael Moynihan to point out that the facts in my story don't precisely parallel the situation in Gaza.

This, though, is why I don't believe in analogies. If you make an argument that hinges on an analogy then people fire back by pointing out some respect in which the situation you described isn't precisely analogous to the thing you're arguing about. It then becomes a contest to specify the analogy so as to exactly mirror the situation you're debating. In which case you may as well just debate the situation. Long story short — these analogy fights are stupid.

This is all true, and anyone who's ever used an analogy in a blog post knows exactly what Matt is talking about. The nitpicking is especially annoying since imprecision is inherent in the form itself: after all, if all the facts matched up precisely, it wouldn't be an analogy. It would be a xerox copy.

Speaking generally, though1, there's another side to this. The point of an analogy isn't precision (we have long, little-read white papers to fill that niche), it's to help people understand a situation better by relating it to something they already know and have some opinion about. So the question is: did Matt's analogy succeed at that purpose? If it did, then it probably made some converts to the cause regardless of whether it was perfectly apposite. The people who pick analogies apart know this perfectly well, of course, and that's why they try to pick them apart. They're hoping to irritate their opponents enough that they cave in and stop using an effective rhetorical tool.

But that's obviously no reason to stop using them. If an analogy is bad or ineffective, then sure: toss it out. But if it's good, keep using it regardless. When the other guys are reduced to cavilling over trifles, you're probably on the right track.

1Which is to say, I'm not defending the specific analogy in question. Just making a broad point about the usefulness of analogies regardless of whether or not they get attacked.

Cuspers

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 6:23 PM EST

CUSPERS....Debra Dickerson points to an essay at CNN.com by Marian Salzman about the end of the baby boom era:

After strutting and tub-thumping and preening their way across the high ground of politics, media, culture and finance for 30 years, baby boomers have gone from top dogs to scapegoats in barely a year.

As baby boomers lose their authority and appeal, generational power is shifting one notch down: to cuspers (born roughly 1954-1965), who arrived in style in 2008 with their first truly major figure, Barack Obama (born 1961).

Cuspers! Hooray! I had always thought of myself as a baby boomer and had become resigned to wearing sackcloth and ashes for the rest of my life. But no. As a 1958 baby, I'm a cusper instead, entitled to hold my head high and sneer at baby boomers just like everyone else. I'm relieved.

Of course, you may be wondering why I should trust Marian Salzman on this subject. CNN provides the answer: "She was named among the 'top five trendspotters' by VNU in 2004 and has been credited with popularizing the term 'metrosexuality.'" Works for me! From now on, I'm a cusper. Bye bye, baby boom.

No More Bush to Kick Around

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 1:37 PM EST

NO MORE BUSH TO KICK AROUND....James Fallows on the Bush press conference earlier today:

I think even people who oppose the Bush Administrations policies would find it somewhat harder to dislike him viscerally after this performance — rather than getting angrier the more they see him, as with most of his appearances over these last eight years....Everything in his posture, expression, and body language — even his emphasis on the word defeat in talking about the 2008 results — indicated that he has taken in the fact that things have not gone well.

I haven't yet watched the press conference myself, so all I can say is: I sure hope Fallows is wrong. It's human nature, of course, for anger over a botched job to recede with time, and perhaps it's also true that anger naturally morphs into other, more complex emotions anyway. How many people today are really angry at Herbert Hoover?

Still, I sure hope that the public doesn't forgive Bush for a very, very long time. To this day I don't understand how such a manifestly unqualified candidate got either nominated or elected in the first place, and the damage this man-child has done to the country during his eight years in office is hard to even put into words. If Barack Obama is lucky, he might — might — by 2016 be able to get us back to where we were in 2000. The last eight years have taken us backward by almost every metric that matters, and as he heads off to Texas, hopefully never to be heard from again, Bush will go down in history as one of the very few presidents to have left the country in demonstrably worse shape than when he got it. It's an elite group indeed.

Short Term vs. Long Term

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 12:39 PM EST

SHORT TERM vs. LONG TERM....As long as we're talking about the economic long term, here's another question for the economics crowd. Conventional wisdom, after first complaining that TARP was misconceived and what was really needed was bank recapitalization, has quickly swung around to the idea that, in fact, Henry Paulson's capital injections were wasted. After all, banks still aren't lending.

Tax cuts, similarly, are in ill repute because they don't necessarily increase consumption. People are more likely to sock the money away in a savings account or use it to pay down credit card debt. So there's no bang for the buck.

But surely this is short sighted? Stimulus spending can (we hope) help keep the economy afloat over the next couple of years, but then what? When the economy starts to recover, it will certainly be helped along if bank balance sheets are in better shape than they are today. Likewise, it will be helped along if consumers have paid down some of that credit card debt and put a few dollars aside. Right? We can't keep running a negative savings rate forever, after all.

So: what's wrong with government spending to stimulate the economy now, combined with tax cuts and bank recapitalizations to help get the economy in shape for recovery a couple of years down the road? This isn't so much a suggestion as a question. Does this make sense, or is there some fundamental misconception at its core? What say the economists?

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The Stimulus

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 12:10 PM EST

THE STIMULUS....From the same Washington Post article about the Bush economic record that I quoted below, we also have this:

"The expansion was a continuation of the way the U.S. has grown for too long, which was a consumer-led expansion that was heavily concentrated in housing," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a onetime Bush White House staffer and one of Sen. John McCain's top economic advisers for his presidential campaign. "There was very little of the kind of saving and export-led growth that would be more sustainable."

"For a group that claims it wants to be judged by history, there is no evidence on the economic policy front that that was the view," Holtz-Eakin said. "It was all Band-Aids."

Agreed — and this is what continues to niggle at the back of my mind. A big stimulus package is all well and good, but suggestions that it should be even bigger and badder than Obama has proposed make me wonder what the end game is. Paul Krugman, for example, criticizes the $800 billion plan on the grounds that it will only make up for part of the output gap caused by the recession, not all of it. But aside from the practical question of whether we could effectively spend double the amount Obama is proposing anyway, I guess I wonder if we should even be trying to make up the entire output gap with domestic spending. Because there really is some readjustment that needs to happen in the medium term.

For years now the the skyrocketing U.S. trade deficit has been Topic A among economists. The big fear was that the Chinese were shipping us goods and we were shipping them back treasury bills, and this couldn't last forever. Eventually the Chinese would tire of stockpiling treasuries, the dollar would crash, and all hell would break loose. In the end, that's not what happened, but it was still the trade deficit that was at the heart of our problem: American consumers went into deep debt to buy all those Chinese goods, the savings glut from China and elsewhere poured into the American housing market, and eventually the music stopped. The dollar didn't crash, but housing and the American consumer did.

But the dollar could yet crash, because one way or another the books have to balance. Americans have to consume less and export more. Keeping American output high is important, but one way or another American consumption has to fall and Chinese consumption has to grow. If a gigantic stimulus plan keeps output high but also keeps consumption high, then it's just another Band-Aid.

So what's the end game? Hardly anyone wants to talk about it. And I feel sort of stuck. I'm not an economist myself, and virtually every economist I respect is on board with the idea that the Obama stimulus package is, if anything, too modest. It should be twice as big and last twice as long. Better safe than sorry. That's hard to argue with, but I still wonder where it's going to leave us in a few years. With a nice soft landing as the dollar rises but doesn't implode, or at the top of yet another bubble waiting to pop?

Quote of the Day - 01.12.09

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 11:40 AM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Edward Lazear, chairman of George Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, on the administration's economic track record:

"It does look like a great eight years, aside from the last quarter, unfortunately."

Actually, he's wrong: it wasn't a great eight years, regardless of whether or not you count the final quarter. But this was still too good a quote not to memorialize.

24

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 11:32 AM EST

24....So I watched the 24 premiere last night, and it's obvious that the show is going to deal head on with the subject of torture this season. Episode 1 opens with Jack testifying before a Senate committee about his past transgressions, which he wearily but defiantly confesses to, and then rolls through two hours of FBI agents wondering "how far he'll go" — because, you see, Jack's exploits with the dark arts are apparently the thing of legend in the hallways of the Bureau.

Is there any way for this end other than badly? After all, here in the blogosphere we opponents of torture like to argue that we don't live in the world of 24, guys. And we don't. But Jack Bauer, needless to say, does live in the world of 24. And in that world, there are well-heeled terrorists around every corner, ticking time bombs aplenty, and torture routinely saves thousands of lives. What are the odds that it won't do so again this season — except this time after lots of talk about the rule of law blah blah liberals blah blah it's your call blah blah? Pretty low, I'd guess. Hopefully the writers will surprise me.

The Harry Potter Effect

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 10:54 AM EST

THE HARRY POTTER EFFECT....Via Dan Drezner, the NEA has released its latest survey of reading habits, and the news is good. Fiction reading among young adults is way up, and overall reading is up too. More than 50% of adults read a piece of literature last year. Huzzah!

The highest rate of reading is among 55-64 year-olds. Poetry reading continued to decline: only 8% of adults read a poem last year, compared to 12% in 2002. And in other unsurprising news, internet reading is concentrated among the young. About half of 18-44 year-olds read an article or essay online last year, with the number plummeting quickly above that. Less than 10% of 70-year-olds read anything online in 2008.